Donald Bren

Donald Bren

Donald Bren


Donald Bren is an American businessman and billionaire who made his fortune from building residential homes. 

Bren is the sole owner and head of the Irvin Company, one of the most successful construction companies in the U.S. market. 

Bren started his career in 1958 with a loan of 10,000 dollars, and now he is one of the 100 wealthiest people in the world with 17.5 billion dollars, and he is the most wealthy builder in the United States. 

Donald Bren  owns about 12 million square feet of real estate, several hotels, hundreds of office buildings, and a skyscraper in Manhattan.

The beginning of Donald Bren's journey

The future billionaire was born on May 11, 1932, to Marion Newbert and Milton Brenn. 

Donald Bren's father was a retired naval officer, worked as an agent in Hollywood, and in 1937 became executive producer of the comedy film "Topper" with Cary Grant. In the wake of the film's success, Milton Bren began producing films himself in 1938, and he later became executive vice president of the Metro-Goldwin-Meyer Film Company.

During World War II, Milton Bren served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy. After the war, in addition to producing films, Milton began building houses and took part in developing part of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood.

Donald Bren's mother, Marion Newbert, became famous as a civic activist. During World War II, Marion founded Bundles for Britain to provide non-military aid to the British population - the female members sewed clothes for the British. The organization was transformed into an auxiliary service to support the U.S. Navy when the U.S. entered the war.

The Brens couple had another young son, Peter. To ensure that the children grew up unspoiled and down-to-earth, their parents assigned the brothers to a regular public school in Beverly Hills. In the summers, the teenagers worked as carpenters for their father's construction firm - repairing rental houses. 

Donald Bren considers the most important lesson from his father to be the idea of long ownership of property as a tangible value. And some of Donald Bren's most vivid childhood memories were his vacation trips to Lido Island in Newport Beach (Orange County south of Los Angeles). Donald Bren would come to the island with a friend's family from the Westside to row in the harbor.

In 1948, Milton Bren and Marion Newbert divorced. In the same year, the second wife of Milton Bren and stepmother of Donald Bren became Claire Trevor - winner of an Oscar and the famous actress called the "queen of noir. Claire was intellectual, interested, and engaged in painting, and patronized

American abstract expressionists. According to Donald Bren, Clare greatly influenced his artistic taste: "From Clare, I learned to see another dimension - depth, symmetry, interrelationships, color. I transferred that to architecture."

Donald Bren: University, Skiing, and the Marines

Donald Bren graduated from high school in 1950 and went to the University of Washington, one of the world's best institutions of higher learning. Donald Bren paid for his education partly with his own money and partly with an athletic scholarship. Donald Bren graduated in 1955 with a bachelor's degree in business administration.

During his studies, Donald Bren was considered an avid athlete and became the university's skiing champion. After graduation, he tried to join the U.S. Olympic ski team but suffered an ankle injury and ended his athletic career and joined the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served as an officer for three years. Donald Bren later recalled that Army discipline "was a rude awakening after college life."

Donald Bren’s First Steps in Business

After serving in the Marines in 1958, Donald Bren returned to Newport Beach and was about to enlist again to pursue a law degree. During one of his childhood walks on the familiar Lido Island, Donald noticed a piece of waterfront land for sale. Donald Bren assessed the area's potential and decided to purchase the land. He had to take out a $10,000 loan from the bank to buy the land and build a house. 

The Bren company was also founded with this money. Donald Bren's company quickly grew and developed through the construction boom of the 1960s and earned a reputation as a quality developer with attractive projects.

In 1963, Donald Bren co-founded and became president of the development company Mission Viejo and began to develop a master plan and manage the construction of a new 11,000-acre (44.52-square-kilometer) community. 

The planned city was named Mission Viejo. Its houses and shopping centers are in the style of the Spanish mission settlements in California in the 18th and 19th centuries - the walls of the buildings are plastered "like adobe," and the roofs are covered with arched shingles. It is believed that the architectural solution of Mission Viejo was the first and most ambitious manifestation of Donald Bren's predilection for Spanish architecture.

In 1967, Donald Bren sold his stake in Mission Viejo to pursue his firm's development and build homes throughout California. And in 1969, Donald Bren sold his construction firm to International Paper for $34 million. Within a couple of years, however, real estate values in California plummeted, and Donald Bren repurchased his firm for $22 million.

Donald Bren: the Project of a Lifetime

1977 was a defining year in Donald Bren's life. After building in Orange County for nearly 20 years, he took on the most significant project, Irvine Ranch, which covers 93,000 acres (376 square kilometers), includes 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) of the Pacific Ocean shoreline, and represents 20% of Orange County. 

The Irvine Company had elaborated a master plan for developing the area since the 1960s. And the city of Irvine was officially registered on December 28, 1971. However, due to increased taxes in California, Irvine management decided to sell it, and Donald Bren took advantage of it to grow the business.

The Irvine Ranch area formerly consisted of two ranches originally located on Spanish and Mexican land owned by James Irvine I, Benjamin and Thomas Flint, and Llewellyn Bixby. Unlike many other landowners in California, they did not divide and sell their land but were going to find profitable agricultural uses for it. James Irvine's son founded the Irvine Company after his father's death to run a ranch and raise cattle.

Already in the 20th century, in 1961 and 1964, the Irvine Company sold 1,500 acres (6 square kilometers) for a symbolic price to the University of California and, together with the university, began to develop a master plan for the area. Thus the city of Irvine started to emerge around the university campus. In many ways, this predetermined Donald Bren's subsequent success.

In purchasing the Irvine Company, Donald Bren competed with large companies such as Mobil Corporation. Since Donald Bren's funds would not be enough to buy the Irvine Company, he teamed up with several investors, including A. Alfred Taubman, who provided 40% of the down payment for the $337.4 million loan. Thus Donald Bren became the owner of 34.3 percent of the company. And Taubman, to profit from the investment, began selling his shares to prominent businessmen such as Henry Ford II, Milton Petrie, Max Fisher, and others.

On the one hand, Taubman's stock sales made it difficult for Donald Bren to take possession of the entire company because he had to make small deals with various people around the country. On the other hand, instead of dealing with a large and interested owner, Donald Bren could now negotiate relatively easily with businessmen who preferred to sell shares of little interest to them at a profit. Thus Donald Bren began to increase his stake in the company.

In the early 1980s, the U.S. housing market stalled, and Donald Bren made a move that sparked one of the biggest legal battles in Orange County's history. By 1983, 11 percent of the Irvine Company was owned by James Irvine's great-granddaughter, Joan Irvine Smith, and her mother, Atali Clark. Together with Donald Bren, they owned more than 90% of the company. 

Donald offered to buy Smith and Clark out of their stake at $200,000 apiece for a total transaction of $115 million. Donald Bren had previously repurchased shares at the same price. But the heiresses thought they could get three times as much from the sale of their stock, up to $363 million.

Joan Smith and Atali Clark filed a lawsuit against the Irvine Company and Donald Bren to get the maximum possible benefit. Litigation dragged on for several years, and by 1991 Smith and Clark had spent over $30 million on legal fees. Joan Smith herself put an end to the dispute - she was convinced that an economic downturn was inevitable. Thus the value of the stock would fall even lower than what Donald Bren had initially offered her. Real estate sales reinforced her fears in Irvine were getting worse.

By the time the lawsuit ended, Donald Bren had long since had the money ready to buy out the Irvine heiresses' stake. When the court ruled that the 11 percent was worth $150.5 million plus interest of $105 million, the Irvine Company transferred $255869690.02 to the bank accounts of Jan Smith and Atali Clark on June 18, 1991. In her interview with the Los Angeles Times, Joan Irvine Smith said: "Donald has been very nice ... This controversy has always been purely about money." 

After buying back more than $600 million worth of stock, Donald Bren became the sole shareholder of the Irvine Company in 1996. By that time, the suburbs south of Los Angeles were booming, and Donald Bren's property promised to bring in substantial profits.

Donald Bren significantly contributed to the image of Los Angeles that is now universally known. He always felt combining well-designed homes with well-developed infrastructure and recreational facilities was essential. Many preservationists were skeptical of his promises to leave large tracts of land free of buildings. Still, Donald Bren eventually donated 57,000 acres (230.5 square kilometers) of land on the Irvine Ranch to the public. Of these, 20,000 acres (81 square kilometers) are pristine wilderness. Much of this park space is now a National Natural Landmark. These lands are home to cougars, golden eagles, and dozens more species of rare and endangered plants and animals.

Donald Bren's idea that building with plenty of open space would make private homeownership more profitable has completely paid off - as of 2011, the average home in Irvine was $600,000, and Donald Bren's company, unaffected by the 2008 crisis, built and sold 1,200 homes in 2010. Irvine, with a population of more than 300,000 and annual population growth of ten thousand, includes residential neighborhoods, shopping centers, parks, top schools, and the headquarters of more than a third of the Fortune 500 companies.

Now the Donald Bren Company's reach extends far beyond the former ranch. The Irvine Company owns commercial, retail, residential, and resort properties in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, San Diego, and Silicon Valley - a total of over 127 million square feet (nearly 12 million square meters) of investment property. It includes more than 570 office buildings, 40 shopping centers, 125 apartment buildings, one coastal resort, two hotels, three golf courses, and five marinas.

Donald Bren owns a 97.3 percent stake in the 58-story MetLife building in New York City, which cost about $3 billion. And in 2014, Bren's company bought a 60-story skyscraper in Chicago for $850 million.

The Irvine Company doesn't disclose financial details, but it has the highest credit rating, and its debt load is about half that of its competitors. Most of its office and retail properties, as well as its land, are debt-free. Donald Bren is listed as the most successful real estate developer in the United States and is on Forbes' list of the wealthiest people in the world, at number 92. Donald Bren's fortune, according to Forbes, is about 17 and a half billion dollars.

At the same time, Donald Bren is often criticized for monopolizing the real estate market in Orange County since he owns an entire city. Some hold Donald Bren responsible for the unreasonable rise in home rental prices, which affects real estate values in Southern California. And despite working closely with local authorities, some initiatives of Donald Bren's development company are met with strong opposition. For example, it took the Irvine Company 28 years to get approval to build Pelican Hill Resort and the adjacent golf course.

Donald Bren’s philanthropic initiatives

In 2008 BusinessWeek magazine named Donald Bren one of the ten most prominent philanthropists in the United States. Donald Bren declares that work and charity have the same priority at this stage of his life. Bren has donated at least $1.3 billion to charity.

Donald Bren regularly funds public schools in the K-12 system and the University of California, as well as scientific research, the arts, and conservation. "I believe the biggest investment we can make is the education of our children," Donald Bren says. According to his website, the Donald Bren Foundation has donated $200 million to education.

The Green Rich List of the British weekly The Sunday Times placed Donald Bren at number 9 for his environmental initiatives in 2009. "The Green Rich List is a list of the hundred wealthiest people in the world who have in one way or another helped conservation. The newspaper estimated Donald Bren's contribution to creating the School of Environmental Science and Management at $20 million. 

A significant step in conservation is also the fact that Donald Bren has transferred 60% of Irvine Ranch to public management in the form of parks and a pristine natural landscape.

In 2007, Donald Bren donated $2.5 million to the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla for research on cancer, neurodegeneration, diabetes, and others.

Donald Bren's Personal Life

The businessman himself prefers to remain a private person. According to OC Weekly publication, Donald Bren is "one of the least public billionaires in the country," which "zealously" protects its privacy. 

Nevertheless, the billionaire is known to have five children from three marriages and one extramarital affair. In 2003, Donald Bren was sued by his ex-girlfriend Jennifer McKay Gold, who had with the

businessman had two children, a son, David, and a daughter, Christy. She demanded retroactive child support of $400,000 for each month since their birth, totaling about $130 million. Jennifer Gold claimed that Donald Bren provided minimal moral and financial support for her and the children.

The trial lasted seven years, and in 2010 a jury ruled that Donald Bren did not have to pay the amount demanded by his ex-girlfriend. The billionaire has helped his children out of wedlock with education and medical care and paid them $9 million.

Donald Bren is now married to lawyer Brigitte Mueller; they were married in 1998 when the billionaire was 66 and Brigitte was 32. The couple had a son in 2003. Donald Bren's family lives on the prestigious Harbor Island in Newport Beach.


According to Donald Bren, he will run his company for as long as possible because he constantly aims for new achievements. For example, the businessman can still spend all night creating blueprints to bring them to the Irvine Company's design department in the morning. Planning his future philanthropic activities, Donald Bren sees great opportunities in the use of solar energy, so he plans to invest his money in advanced developments in this area.

Famous quotes from Donald Bren

"Impossible is nothing" (Donald Bren);

"Ordinary companies strive to make a good product. The great ones only rest once they've achieved perfection" (Donald Bren);

"The main gas pedal of growth is not the market, technology, competition, or products. It is finding and retaining the right people for the company" (Donald Bren).

Donald Bren’s favorite books 

"The Thoughts," Blaise Pascal.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain.

"Travels with Charley: In Search of America" John Steinbeck.

"Moby Dick," Herman Melville.

Donald Bren’s favorite Music

Jazz (Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone)

Avant-garde (Anton Webern, George Gershwin)

Frequently Asked Questions

In what year did Donald Bren begin his building career?

Donald Bren built his first building for sale in 1958.

How many properties does Donald Bren now own?

Donald Bren owns more than 570 office buildings, 40 shopping centers, 125 apartment buildings, three hotels, three golf clubs, five marinas, and at least 60,000 low-rise homes. Donald Bren's investment properties total more than 127 million square feet (nearly 12 million square feet).

How many years has Donald Bren been involved in building the city of Irvine?

Since buying his first interest in the Irvine Company in 1977, Donald Bren has been involved in planning and building in Irvine for over 45 years.