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Tuesday, Jul 16, 2024

Hybrid Approach Drives Irvine-Based Builder

Family-owned WJK Development Co. in Irvine didn’t take long to grab the top spot as the Business Journal’s Fastest-Growing Small Company.

“We’re a young group of hard-working people, and we’re fortunate to have lot of helpful partners,” said President and Chief Executive Grant Keene.

The Business Journal estimates WJK’s revenue at $6 million for the year ended June 30. That’s a 744% growth in the last year, and about 1,280% growth in the past two years (see About Our Annual Fastest-Growing Private Companies List, page 28; see related stories, page 1).

The company got started in 2014 with some capital from family, and now employs 12. It’s a speculative real estate developer and contractor that builds what it calls “semi-customized homes”—allowing homeowners to choose individual finishes and some changes to the floorplan—along the California coast, working in areas ranging from Santa Monica to Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Corona Del Mar.

Keene said the company has about 18 months of work in its pipeline and it continues to accept projects.

WJK aims to carve out a point of difference with a hybrid approach to design.

Traditional designs can feel like a grandparent’s home and are a little too ornate for Southern California, Keene said, while contemporary styles can be a little too cold and impersonal.

“Our designs are a fusion of traditional and contemporary styles,” Keene said, “that seems to be a good balance for the (Southern California) market’s needs and wants in a home.”

Keene describes the designs as a having a farmhouse exterior and a contemporary floorplan with a few elements of traditional homes, all designed for the California lifestyle.

Friends, Family

Keene founded the company with his brothers Barry and John Paul after he worked for Dornin Investment Group in Laguna Beach for three years. Barry is chief of operations and John Paul is the company’s marketing director.

Dornin Investment is a real estate investment and management firm that buys distressed office, multifamily and hospitality properties.

It has invested about $350 million in three years in California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Colorado.

“I received a lot of exposure to real estate development and investment while working there as a manager,” Keene said.

The University of California-Irvine graduate was director of construction management at Dornin Investment, and said he’s very grateful to principals Chris and Marcella Dornin for teaching him about real estate acquisition, financing and development.

Tear Downs

Keene said WJK Development started as a general contractor—with licenses for architecture, mechanical and civil engineering—targeting tear-down properties along the coast.

The company’s growth accelerated when it partnered last year with real estate investment firm KS Capital and real estate brokerage Parse Real Estate, both in Irvine.

“They really helped fuel my growth,” Keene said. “They infused the capital and brokers to find deals and finance them.”

The partnership prompted Keene to add KS Capital employees to his company.

KS Capital founder Bobby Kashani now is vice president of structured finance at WJK Development and raises debt to fund projects.

KS Capital broker Sean Calcagnie is WJK’s vice president of acquisitions and directs property acquisitions in underdeveloped and up-and-coming communities.

Keene said he’s struck more deals as he talked with real estate brokers, family offices investing in real estate and neighbors curious about various construction projects.


The company has about 18 months of projects in the pipeline because of the partnership, Keene said.

“I visit every project and currently have 12 sites in Los Angeles, four in Huntington Beach and four in Newport Beach,” Keene said.

Don’t expect WJK’s numbers to be quite as eye-popping next year.

“There’s no way we can sustain the growth we had in the last year,” said Keene, who projects about $10 million in revenue for this calendar year.

“It may grow to $20 million in two or three years,” he said. “But I need a way to insulate myself” from the next downward cycle for Southern California real estate. He’s thinking about forming a new business group to work directly for homeowners who want to build custom homes or redesign existing properties.

Coastal Preference

Keene said the new business arm also would likely focus on California’s coastal markets.

He hasn’t considered the residential real estate markets along the East Coast or Florida.

Homeowners in other states usually prefer different exteriors and interiors than Californians and it could be expensive to learn those East Coast preferences.

Keene said he takes bike rides to help him consider the real estate market from street level and “slow down from the project schedule.”

He has also made it a habit to bring a bike with him on trips around the country. He has family in St. Louis and met with a friend in Minnesota.

Keene said he was impressed with the residential market in Minnesota during a recent work trip.

“There’s lots of pride in their home owners,” he said. “All the homes have manicured lawns and they have all have the American flag hanging on their porch.”

Impressive, but “WJK will remain in Coastal California,” Keene said, “we’ll stick with what we know.”

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