Firm Comes Long Way from Chicken Ranch : Baldwin Co. Celebrates 30th Anniversary as Succesful Home Builder in Southland

Times Staff Writer

Ike was President, Elvis was king, and Noel Baldwin was a mailman who decided to become a builder.

That was in 1956. This year, Baldwin’s sons Alfred (Al) and James (Jim) are celebrating their family owned building firm’s 30th anniversary.

But when Al Baldwin says, “We are among the few builders today who know how to build houses,” he is referring to the Baldwin Co.'s earlier days. “Most builders our size come from the financial world, not from construction. So they can hire people with technical knowledge, but we grew up building.”


He’s not kidding. He was only 12, and his brother was 16, when their father hung up the mailbag. “My father was 42, the same age that I am now,” he recalled. Noel Baldwin quit the Post Office to subdivide his three-acre Temple City chicken ranch.

Feeding the Chickens

“I welcomed the home building because then I didn’t have to come home every day from school to feed the 25 or so chickens,” Al Baldwin remembered, “but then I found out that feeding the chickens was easier than wheeling concrete.”

Feeding chickens was certainly easier than digging a foundation without heavy equipment. “It took my dad a long time to build his first house,” he said.

Noel Baldwin actually started work on the first house a couple of years before he quit being a mailman. “He drew a line on the ground in a sweet-potato patch and told my brother and me to start digging,” his son recalled. “We dug the (foundation for the) first house by hand.” That house was sold in 1957.

By the time they were done with the ranch, the Baldwins had built five homes there. Then they acquired other sites, primarily in the San Gabriel Valley, where they built about 600 homes before Noel Baldwin retired in 1972.

Sees Improved Sales

Since then, the company, now headquartered in Irvine, has built and sold more than 5,000 homes. At the end of 1985, the firm had a sales volume of about $130 million, Baldwin said. In a Professional Builder magazine listing of the top 475 builders in the United States, the Baldwin Co. placed 88th in dollar volume and 178th in number of units built. In The Times’ 15th annual Survey of Residential Construction and Sales Activity in Southern California, published in March, the firm ranked 13th out of 144 building companies.

“We sold just under 800 homes in 1985, and this year we have the potential to substantially increase that number,” he noted. The firm expects to sell about 1,500 homes in 1986.

These will be a variety of types--single-family, condominiums and town houses--and prices--from $80,000 to more than $200,000. And they will be in 18 subdivisions in six locations, all in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, with an estimated 70% of the units in two projects: Carmel Del Mar in San Diego and Portola Hills in El Toro.

It’s no surprise that the Baldwin brothers do business strictly in Southern California. It’s where they were born and raised, graduated from college (Jim from Woodbury, Al from USC), married and had families.

Brother on Sabbatical

Each of the brothers has four children. Al’s range from 13 to 21, Jim’s from 10 to 20. “They’re somewhere out there, sailing,” Al said of Jim’s family. Jim took a 2 1/2-year sabbatical to sail and skin dive around the world. “But my family and I are going to join them, probably in Australia, for awhile this summer,” Al said.

The Baldwin brothers also have two sisters. “They used to work for our company, but after my dad retired, he started a small business with them, and they build about 10 homes a year now,” Baldwin said.

The Baldwins are a close family, he acknowledged, and a big one, which he attributes in part to their religious background--"Catholic, you know.”

He considers himself a religious person and proudly admits that he goes to church every Sunday and is “very involved in church activities, because I feel that life moves so fast these days, you need religion to maintain a degree of morality and purpose.”

Proud of Product

One of his purposes as president of the family’s firm is to build housing that he can be proud of years later, housing that sometimes offers a little something extra, such as swimming pools and tennis courts in single-family projects.

“I’m always proud to go back to a neighborhood that we built,” he said. Even in Montebello, where buyers complained of faulty work in 1975?

“Oh, Montebello, that’s where we had a roofing contractor go broke on us,” Baldwin remembered. “He did defective work, then did repairs but not properly. We had to hire another contractor to fix everything.”

While the new contractor was making repairs, the Baldwins offered to buy back houses of dissatisfied customers. “Nobody took us up on it,” he recalled.

Made Donations

Such experiences are just part of doing business, he figures, like fighting no-growth advocates. “People like the status quo, and we face this in every community we go into,” he said, “but I think there is more understanding now than in the past because communities realize that people need places to live.”

He also contends that his firm has a responsibility “to give back to the community,” which it has done through donations to several projects including construction of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, which opened last September, and current remodeling of the Laguna Beach Art Museum, which is due to reopen in September. A spokeswoman for the museum called the Baldwins “major donors” and reported that the $1.5-million renovation is “well under way.”

Baldwin likes art and keeps a lot of it in the Irvine offices his firm has maintained in the same location since 1973. In his own office, he has bronze sculptures of animals and Indians, a painting of Indians, a petroglyph of what he says is an Indian’s foot, and a mounted head--"a caribou I took in Alaska five years ago.”

He likes the peace of the mountains and goes every year for 10 days with a friend into the wilderness of Wyoming. “We don’t take a guide, but we do take my horses,” he added. “I like the American West very much.”

Land of Opportunity

It epitomizes to him the spirit of America. As he put it, “This country has great opportunity as we (at the Baldwin Co.) show. Look at my father, who started as a mailman.” He established a company that now has more than 200 employees.

His sons went from digging the foundation of a house by hand to building large master-planned communities. Portola Hills and Carmel Del Mar each has about 1,000 acres.

They went from building a single, custom-type house to a variety of housing, even apartments, and commercial construction, which they are just now doing in a large way. In El Toro, they are developing 200 acres of office and industrial space. In San Diego, they are planning to build a neighborhood shopping center and more than 1 million square feet of offices.

“It all happened in a natural way,” Baldwin said. But it also took planning: joint ventures with financial institutions for awhile and the acquisition in the 1970s of large parcels of land.

‘Key Is Our People’

“Now we have the financial capacity so we don’t need to joint venture and we have the land. The key now is our people. Our 13 managers make things happen.” His firm has in-house real estate brokerage, interior design and other services and also owns a wholesale nursery and a tree farm.

And what of the future? “We’re in a good market, but it’s very competitive. That’s good for the consumer. Interest rates are good, and there is a wide selection of homes. We’re building a lot of communities for first-time- and maturing buyers, but as we reach the year 2000, we’ll need more senior housing.”

He sees that through the eyes of his parents and also his grandfather, who is 95.