O.C.’s Donald quietly trumps The Donald

There is that Donald.

You know, Trump, the loud New York real estate mogul running for president.

Then there is the Orange County Donald. Donald Bren, the quiet Irvine Co. land baron.

These are two immensely successful businessman who distinctly created billion-dollar fortunes in the same property trade that’s sunk many of their competitors.

Trump, 69, to put it mildly, is brash. His projects are literally coated in gold and stamped with his name. All the while, he’s also mastered the media.

Bren, 83, prefers subtle hues and Mediterranean designs. He’s no recluse, but let’s just say he enjoys his privacy.

But words do not equate to wealth – as was made abundantly clear last week with the release of the 2015 Forbes 400, an annual tally of America’s wealthiest people.

Bren, who’s been on the Forbes list every year since its inception in 1982, was ranked as the 30th wealthiest American – and owner of the nation’s biggest personal real estate fortune – with a net worth of $15.2 billion.

Forbes estimated Trump’s wealth at $4.5 billion, the 121st biggest fortune. A figure he strongly disagreed with; Trump insists he’s worth $10 billion.

Oddly, almost nobody in this ranking enjoys the spotlight this list creates, as it can draw unwanted attention. Few in this circle dare to publicly question the business magazine’s math. Bren, as is typical, declined to comment.

And then there’s Trump.

He’s sparred with Forbes editors for decades, as he’s done with others who dare to quantify his wealth, and understate it, in his mind. (Bloomberg News, for what it’s worth, estimates Trump’s worth at $2.9 billion.) And while no one replied to the Register’s request for comment, Trump did take time out from his campaign to vilify Forbes for undercounting his wealth by at least half.

“They don’t really know my assets very well,” Trump told the CNBC business news network last week.

But either using Forbes’ guesstimates or Trump’s widely quoted own words, my trusty spreadsheet shows that in the past three decades Trump’s fortune has not grown much more than a key real estate investment benchmark, the NAREIT Composite Index. Trump and the index have each grown roughly twentyfold since 1982.

Compare that to Bren’s performance: His estimated wealth has ballooned fortyfold in the past 33 years.

Turns out that a large bet on California beat a mix of New York real estate, casinos and assorted other businesses with a celebrity’s name slapped on them.


Timing is everything. And both Donalds entered real estate at seemingly perfect moments.

Bren, Los Angeles bred and schooled at the University of Washington, started building Southern California homes in the 1960s, just as the regional economy was ready to blossom into one of the world’s great business climates.

In 1977, he was part of an investor group that acquired Irvine Co., which controlled 93,000 acres of Orange County. He bought out most of his partners in 1983, became sole owner in 1996, and then used his vast land holdings and financial acumen to craft a housing, retail and office-space empire.

Trump grew up near my home in the New York borough of Queens and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School – my alma mater, too.

After college, he joined his father’s apartment business in New York’s outer boroughs. It’s always nice to have a rich dad when you’re starting out, but it’s never been clear how much financial help Donald Trump got from his father Fred Trump, who died in 1999.

The younger Trump nudged the family business to expand its focus into office projects in Manhattan. The city was a financial and civic mess in the 1970s when Trump was learning his craft.

That turmoil provided a huge opportunity.

The storylines of the two Donalds first crossed when Forbes initially tallied America’s wealthiest in 1982. Both Donalds made the cut.

Bren’s wealth was pegged at $350 million back then. Trump’s net worth was estimated at $200 million; his father’s fortune made the list, too, also at $200 million. And as became the annual ritual, Trump disagreed: He chose to value himself at $500 million.

The 1980s were very good for real estate. Once sky-high interest rates pruned painfully steep inflation rates, the economy took off.

Bren’s Irvine Co. was a major benefactor of rapid growth in Orange County. The developer swiftly built on land he owned within the city master plan for Irvine.

Meanwhile, Trump was building and cultivating his public persona. He opened the landmark Trump Tower mixed-use project in Manhattan and wrote the best-selling “The Art of the Deal.” He also joined the rush to build casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., where gambling had just been legalized.

By 1988, Forbes had Trump’s net worth at $1 billion – and inexplicably upped it to $1.7 billion the next year.

It was later learned that Trump was missing payments on some of his debts in 1989. Bren was worth $1.85 billion that year.


In the following decade, the building boom petered out, leaving excess supply. The savings and loan industry collapse took away a major financial support. And a recession early in the decade was the last thing the industry needed.

Trump suffered immensely as his attempt to diversify backfired. Two of his casinos in Atlantic City ended up in bankruptcy.

Trump’s biggest mistake was giving personal guarantees on some of his company debts. That nearly cost him his financial empire. He was forced to beg for cash from relatives to keep his business operations in the early 1990s, as the assets that he held on to were saddled with debt.

If anything earned him bragging rights as a master dealmaker, it was Trump’s ability to escape this disaster with enough business control left to prosper once again. By 1999, Forbes was valuing his empire at $1.7 billion.

Far less is known about what challenges Bren faced during this time. His Southern California base suffered as a sluggish economy digested major job losses from reduced defense budgets.

One move by Bren may have shown temporary weakness: He sold a portion of his apartment empire in 1993 on Wall Street, but spent $500 million to return it to his total control in 1999.

Forbes cut Bren’s estimated wealth by 40 percent in two years, to $1.1 billion in 1991. Bren’s fortune was not valued above the 1989 level until it hit $2 billion in 1994.

The regional economic volatility persuaded Bren to spread out his portfolio. As real estate rebounded with the state economy, the Irvine Co. started to make significant investments in other high-growth California markets. Notably San Diego and Silicon Valley.

All told, both men had to be happy they survived the decade. Trump, by Forbes’ accounting, was worth $1.6 billion in 1999 – more or less unchanged in 10 years. (Of course, he claimed he was really worth $4.5 billion!)

Bren’s worth hit $3.2 billion in 1999, up 73 percent in the decade – equal to the gain in the overall industry, according to the NAREIT index.


Real estate always surprises, and the start of this century has proved no exception.

Overall economic weakness pushed interest rates to historic lows and numerous uncertainties made commercial real estate look like a desirable investment option.

Yet aggressive lending practices overheated many property sectors by the middle of the 2000s, and the resulting collapse helped create an unprecedented global recession.

Trump and Bren both dodged much of the pain.

Trump ramped up efforts to sell his brand, an intangible asset he claims is worth $3 billion. (Nobody else thinks so.)

His biggest success outside of real estate was “The Apprentice,” the popular TV show that featured guests competing for a spot as a Trump protege. Those who failed were eliminated with Trump’s signature “You’re fired” send-off.

Trump begun to license his name heavily to other developers, allowing him to profit without taking much of the development risk. His name was tied to several controversial projects in which he had little or no ownership interest.

Bren continued to transform his out-of-town bets, highlighted by trophy towers acquired in Chicago and New York City.

In Orange County, the Irvine Co. invested big in apartments and its stunning early return to post-recession homebuilding certainly made Bren hundreds of millions of dollars. Plus, he’s recently built three office towers in Orange County, a building boom seen in only a handful of cities nationwide.

Overall, those strategies have worked out well for the two Donalds.

Bren’s fortune, by Forbes’ math, has grown to $15.2 billion – a 375 percent gain since 1999, and more than twice the industry’s overall 155 percent growth. Trump, by Forbes’ math, is now worth $4.5 billion – up 181 percent in 15 years.

As you might expect, Trump disagrees. His campaign filings suggest he’s worth $8.7 billion. He tells numerous people his worth is more like $10 billion.

But Trump can’t have it both ways. If he says he’s worth $10 billion now, that’s exactly what he was saying in 2008, too. So has this net worth gone nowhere in seven years while the industry has essentially doubled?

To me, it’s all noise. Trump has created a huge, real estate-based fortune. Why he chooses to boast and argue about his finances is beyond me.

I prefer quiet wealth. Like Bren, who’d never say what I will: Financially, he’s kicked that other Donald’s rear end.

Contact the writer: jlansner@ocregister.com

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