How I Made It: For this developer, a bad bet was the first step toward success

Steve Cameron, president of developer Foremost Companies, at Terramor, a 1,443-home community the company is building in Temescal Valley.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Steve Cameron, 57, is president of Foremost Companies, a Newport Beach-based developer that owns and manages more than 12,000 residential lots across the Golden State. The Chicago-area native and his team of 23 are currently building two large master-planned communities in Southern California — Terramor in Temescal Valley and Deerlake Ranch near Porter Ranch.

An unlikely start

In the 1980s, Cameron was working as a salesman selling printing supplies after graduating college. Thinking that was “not what my life is supposed to be about,” he enrolled in a night program at Northwestern University’s business school.

While there, he used some savings to invest in a real estate development: a new Wal-Mart “somewhere in Alabama or Arkansas.” It didn’t go well.

So, Cameron said, he started talking to his classmates at Northwestern.

“I didn’t understand exactly why I had invested or what was going wrong with it, so I was like, ‘I got to go figure this out,’” he recalls. “That is what piqued my interest in real estate.”

Building a career

Those conversations with classmates eventually landed Cameron a job working in the construction lending group at Continental Bank in Chicago. There he worked mostly with home builders in Southern California, which eventually led to his first trip to the state and a drive from San Diego to Newport Beach.

“Oh my gosh, this is amazing,” he recalled thinking. “You got the ocean on the left and the mountains on the right. I am going to move out here.”

Several years later he did, taking a job with one of his former home builder clients, Fieldstone. Cameron stayed there for 16 years, climbing the ranks and gaining an ownership stake.

As the housing market began to overheat in 2005, Cameron said, he and the company anticipated the downturn that was to come and tried to “sell as much as we could” and cash out. In late 2006, as the housing bubble was popping, Cameron left to strike out on his own.

Construction underway at Terramor. Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Becoming an entrepreneur

Starting a real estate company at that time might seem like an awful idea, but as a master developer, Foremost buys land, gets projects approved, then builds the streets and community centers and sells lots to individual home builders. With land prices plummeting, “it was the perfect time to start a company,” Cameron said.

Cameron said Foremost didn’t even buy anything for 15 months. “There was an expression: ‘Don’t catch a falling knife.’ Let the market bottom before you start buying.”

When he did buy, the market had completely shifted.

“We started going to the courthouse steps and buying large pieces of land at auctions, peeling off cashier’s checks,” he said. “That was pretty exciting.”

There was an expression: 'Don’t catch a falling knife.' Let the market bottom before you start buying.

Steve Cameron

Tips for success

For people looking to start their own business, Cameron said finding a good mentor is key.

Also, be curious, take initiative and work hard. Cameron says he knows he’s found an excellent worker when, after he’s handed them an “inch-thick” copy of “Curtin's California Land Use and Planning Law,” they “actually read it and ask me questions.”

“They take responsibility for their career,” he said.

Hard work is something Cameron says learned from his father, an accountant, and his mother, who worked in education and went to school at night to get various degrees.

“That’s the environment I grew up in,” he said. “You were always working and going to school.”