In 25 Years, Koll Grew into a Giant : Firm Had Start as Builder of Small Industrial Structures

Times Staff Writer

Orange County's robust growth in the past 25 years mirrors the efforts of men of vision who started businesses there with little more than faith in themselves and in the future of that area.

Today, the Newport Beach-based Koll Co., headed by Donald M. Koll, is the largest West Coast-headquartered owner and manager of real estate in the nation, with a total of 25 million square feet, and a history of building value for its real estate investment partners.

The firm's $2.5-billion portfolio ranges from high-rise office buildings to multi-tenant industrial parks, reaching from Seattle to San Diego and into Phoenix.

'Ultimate Deal Maker'

"With a 25-year builder's track record behind us, we are now placing special emphasis on our role as investment manager," the firm's chairman, president and chief executive officer said. "We believe we have shown major financial institutions, pensions funds and corporations why they should invest their money with us."

Koll has been described as "the ultimate deal maker," with an innate understanding of tenants' needs, product-by-product and market-by-market.

How does he respond to that?

"I don't think that we're any more unusual than other developers. Every developer is a deal maker, but he must also remain close to the market and recognize the needs of a growing community. When I identify that need, I do my darndest to fulfill it," he said.

A man who enjoys hunting, reading books and boating, and who regrets having so little time to pursue these pastimes, Koll continues to build on his general contractor beginnings, attuned to the activities of the Koll Construction Co., which has an annual volume of $400 million as builder of all Koll Co. projects and as general contractor for other developers.

Described as low-key and totally involved with a team of 750 people, Koll is backed by four corporate partners and executive vice presidents.

Ed Griffin heads Koll's joint-venture financing, J. Harold Street oversees marketing and development, John L. Wills heads construction, and Ray Wirta is in charge of asset management and acquisitions. Lawrence Kellner is the firm's chief financial officer.

Formative Years

The growth of the Koll Co., formed originally in 1962 as the Don Koll Co., can best be summarized in a series of company milestones, the first of which came in 1964 when Koll, a former Air Force pilot and general contractor, began building small industrial structures with loading doors in the rear and landscaping in front to create among the first multi-tenant industrial complexes or business parks in Southern California.

J. Frank Mahoney III, retired chairman, president and chief executive officer of Coldwell Banker Commercial Group, clearly remembers the company's formative years when he initially brought Aetna and Koll together on a San Diego project, and the years of close association that followed for Mahoney in the leasing of Koll projects and other negotiations.

"There was a definite need for office and warehouse space for smaller firms, and in the 1960s Koll filled that need with offices and light-manufacturing facilities, not readily available then, that were attractive tilt-ups, inexpensive to build and adaptable to the needs of tenants starting up," Mahoney recalled.

Airport Business Park

A second milestone for the company came three years later when Koll, who was looking for land to develop in Orange County, acquired 100 acres from the Irvine Co.

The project became the Airport Business Park, a 68-building, multitenant industrial and office complex with 1.2 million square feet of space, near the Orange County (now John Wayne) Airport and the newly constructed San Diego and Newport (now Costa Mesa) freeways.

Koll initiated the first joint venture in Southern California between a real estate developer and a financial firm when Aetna joined with his firm as project partner.

"That was considered a radical approach. Previously, financial firms merely lent money for development," Koll said.

Other Investors

Aetna continues to joint venture with Koll, but other financial institutions have also become co-investors on a variety of projects, among them CIGNA, Columbia Savings & Loan, Copley Real Estate Advisors, John Hancock Mutual, Transamerica and others.

Another significant milestone for the firm has been its spreading geographic coverage. From its initial Newport Beach headquarters, Koll developed its operation in San Diego and now has fully staffed regional offices in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco/East Bay, San Jose/South Bay, Los Angeles and in Phoenix.

Koll, who comes from "a family of builders" that migrated from Germany in 1880, is credited with the vision that MacArthur Boulevard in the vicinity of John Wayne Airport could well become the "Wilshire Boulevard " of Orange County.

"In 1972, in partnership with Aetna, we acquired a 125-acre site on MacArthur Boulevard that was then mostly industrial, and on that site we built the Koll Center Newport with 1.4 million square feet in low- and mid-rise office buildings, plus the Meridien Hotel and several restaurants," Koll said.

Most Significant Project

Nine years later, the Koll Co. began its singularly most significant project when ground was broken in 1981 for Koll Center Irvine on 90 acres on both sides of the San Diego Freeway in Irvine. The project is 60% complete.

"We envision a $1-billion mixed-use complex to include 17 low-, medium- and high-rise office buildings, four hotels, 20 restaurants, an athletic club, retail facilities and multi-screen cinema," Koll reported, adding that the latter was designed to serve the needs of growing residential communities in the area.

During the past four years, the company has acquired 4 million square feet of office and industrial buildings, ranging from the 23-story First Interstate Bank building in downtown San Diego to two office parks totaling 15 buildings in Torrance.

The firm's strengths, Koll said, are in marketing and asset management. "Our buildings lease quickly," he added, "and currently our asset management team has a base of 5,000 tenants representing a 92% occupancy."

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