Success, From the Ground Up : O.C.'s Gary Brinderson Is a Building Heavyweight

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Three decades after he launched his business with a set of tools and a pickup truck, Gary L. Brinderson presides over one of nation's top construction firms.

A Learjet supplanted the pickup as Brinderson Corp. expanded, tackling heavy construction projects across the country while competing against heavyweights such as Fluor Corp. and Bechtel Corp.

"I think you have to think of him and his company and his successes as right up there with those other major companies," said Gary Hunt, an Irvine Co. executive and friend of Brinderson. "And he's done it to a large extent on his own ability and his own drive."

From the day Brinderson bought that first pickup, he "took off like a rocket," said his uncle, Aaron Dudley.

"There was just no slowing him down," Dudley said. "He astounded everybody in the industry. He would jump in and bid these jobs that you would think were out of his reach. . . . He would tackle anything."

Since opening his first office in Costa Mesa, Brinderson's privately owned firm has completed more than 270 projects valued at more than $3 billion. Today, his company has 44 jobs underway in California and Arizona. The company has a branch in Torrance and this month opened a 10,000-square-foot office in Phoenix.

Everything Brinderson touches, however, doesn't turn to gold. Certainly his ventures into the Orange County real estate market have not been resoundingly successful, and one seems in danger of flopping altogether.

In 1985, Brinderson bought the 10.4-acre Smithcliffs at the edge of Laguna Beach, hurling himself into a minefield of controversy over his plans to subdivide the property, which environmentalists said was one of the few undeveloped monarch butterfly roosts left in the state.

And in what could be a more painful financial belly-flop, Brinderson is currently battling foreclosure with a former partner over half of what was once grandly known as the "Brinderson Towers" at MacArthur Boulevard and Jamboree Road in Irvine.

His former partner, Equitable Life Assurance Society of the U.S., says he must come up with $11.5 million by Friday or he'll lose the building that houses his offices.

Brinderson Tuesday brushed off the threat, saying he has offered to buy the building outright for $39 million.

It is exactly that sort of unflappable self-confidence that has fueled Brinderson's amazing success, his friends and family members say.

"He'll focus on something and then, no matter what the obstacles or hurdles are, he'll absolutely overcome them," said Anthony Loscavio, a Brinderson Corp. vice president. "Failure is never an item on the menu."

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If Brinderson is enjoying success now, it didn't come easily.

"It's a Horatio Alger story," said George Argyros, chief executive of the Costa Mesa investment firm Arnel & Affiliates.

Brinderson's roots and his drive can be traced to his grandfather, Joe Brinderson, an Italian immigrant who had earlier changed his name from Brindisi. The elder Brinderson moved to Chino in the early 1900s, where he was a machinist in a sugar beet factory and later opened a stainless-steel fabrication shop next to his house.

Gary Brinderson grew up in a row of six houses, all occupied by relatives. After his mother died when he was 4 years old, family members pitched in to help rear him.

Brinderson said he was drawn to construction work after watching his uncles work in the family business. At about 16, he got a job with a local contractor, and by 19 was bidding for his own contracts.

At 21, Brinderson opened his Costa Mesa office with about 15 employees.

While juggling a growing business, Brinderson--who then lived in Pomona--began taking classes at Citrus College in Azusa. Today, he holds an MBA from Pepperdine University and is a graduate of the Advanced Management Program of the Harvard School of Business.

Determined to maintain a 4.0 grade-point average in graduate school, on weekdays Brinderson rose at 4 a.m. and studied until he went to work at 8 a.m.. On weekends, he studied from 6 a.m. until noon.

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In the late 1960s, Brinderson's company made a breakthrough, landing a $60,000 government contract to repipe the barracks at Edwards Air Force Base, to that point his biggest contract.

By the early 1970s, he was doing excavation and structural concrete work. Soon, he was building from the dirt up, chasing jobs around the nation.

Each project was a stretch, Brinderson said, and "task by task" he gained confidence in his ability to organize large-scale projects.

He reached another turning point around 1972 when he landed a $7-million project to rebuild a pier in San Diego. Fighting the shifting tides, his company rebuilt the structure and installed utilities to allow ships to dock and shut down their boilers.

From there, the projects became increasingly complex.

Around 1980, Brinderson landed a $100-million construction project to build a desalination plant in Yuma, Ariz., for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

In the mid-1980s, Brinderson was one of a handful of industry executives invited to New York to help form the Construction Industry Presidents Forum, to positively change the industry.

"We knew him to be a hotshot young contractor," said the group's director, Arthur Fox, who is also former editor of Engineering News-Record, which for the past 20 years has listed Brinderson Corp. among the top 200 construction firms in the nation.

"He thinks broadly," Fox said. "He's a national player."

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In the late 1980s, Brinderson stepped apart from Brinderson Corp. and began buying real estate in Orange County.

The purchase of the Smithcliffs estate was a painful odyssey that included 17 public hearings and three lawsuits, said Brinderson, who calls it "probably the worst decision I ever made."

His headaches with Smithcliffs can be traced to the city of Laguna Beach, which insisted on annexing the oceanfront parcel so it could have more control over its development.

Former Laguna Beach City Councilman Neil Fitzpatrick, then the city's negotiator, described Brinderson as a smooth operator with well-placed friends who help him get his way.

"Gary is a very polished, sophisticated negotiator and he exercises a lot of power in this county," Fitzpatrick said. "He's not very happy dealing with a little pipsqueak city that cares more about its environment than it does about development."

While Laguna Beach was ultimately allowed to annex the land, Brinderson didn't give in until the city relinquished design review of the homes now being built there, Fitzpatrick said.

Today, all but three of the 26 bare Smithcliffs lots--priced at $500,000 to $4 million each--have sold, Brinderson said.

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In 1987, Brinderson entered the joint venture with Equitable, forming Brin-Mar I to build the elegant office towers in Irvine.

In 1991, when the partnership ran into financial problems, Brinderson said he agreed to have his interest cut from 50% to 30% to avoid pitching in any more money.

"I have no obligation to put up one penny," Brinderson now says, a statement Equitable disputes. "They were totally in control and responsible."

Once Equitable had controlling interest in the partnership, Brinderson said, Equitable bought the note from Banque Paribas, a French bank, without his approval. He said it was done to eventually squeeze him out of ownership.

In the midst of the hoopla, Brinderson insisted his name be stricken from the towers, which are now called Newport Gateway I and II. Equitable has already taken 100% ownership of Newport Gateway II. Newport Gateway I is the subject of the current foreclosure debate.

Equitable spokesmen say this week's threatened foreclosure was prompted by a $55-million overdue balance on the loan now held by Equitable. They said Brinderson must pay $11.5 million to maintain his equity in the building.

"Mr. Brinderson did not make that payment and, as a result, we will be foreclosing on Friday," said Equitable spokesman Jonathan D. Miller. "He's the master of his own fate here."

Brinderson said he would prefer to simply buy the building.

Jetting off on a snowboarding trip to Utah on Tuesday, he bristled at any talk of foreclosure. Characteristically, Brinderson brushes aside his setbacks.

Real estate, he says, was a diversion, his "personal annuity." And Brinderson Corp., the empire he gave birth to, is still on a roll.

If the company doesn't make another deal in 1996, Brinderson said, it will still be a very good year.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Building a Dream

Brinderson Corp., founded 30 years ago by Gary L. Brinderson, is one of the largest privately held corporations in the state. Details on the company and its founder:

Profile: Gary L. Brinderson

Age: 51

Education: MBA from Pepperdine University; graduated from Harvard School of Business Advanced Management Program

Background: Founded Brinderson Corp., an Irvine-based construction firm, in 1966 when he was 21 years old.

Organizations: Member of CEO, an international organization of chief executive officers; former chairman of Orange County chapter of Young Presidents Organization and director of the World Presidents Organization; past president of Construction Industries Presidents' Forum.

Hobbies: Windsurfing, skiing, dirt-bike riding.

Residence: Laguna Beach

Personal: Married, four children

Brinderson Corp. at a Glance

Founded: 1966

Headquarters: Irvine

Offices: Torrance and Phoenix

Business: Heavy construction

Areas of emphasis: Process plants, refineries, ports, energy plants, health-care facilities and industrial complexes

Status: Private

Past projects: Brinderson Towers office complex, Colorado River desalination plant, Travis Air Force Base hospital, Trident Submarine training center

Current projects: Oil refinery renovation; food and beverage facility expansion; Smithcliffs, an exclusive residential enclave overlooking Laguna Beach

Source: Brinderson Corp.; Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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