Pepperdine People Magazine
Pepperdine People Magazine Fall 2005
More than a Builder: Alumnus Steve Olson reclaims and recycles city neighborhoods.
By Wileen Wong
Business success came quickly to Steve Olson, who sold his high-tech company in the 1980s, anxious to ply his talents elsewhere. Change "did him good," as the expression goes. His real estate development company, begun in 1988 with a staff of only four, including his wife, has become one of the top development companies in California and is now addressing the critical shortage of affordable housing in the state.
Today, the Olson Company is one of the Golden State's most successful builders of urban residential communities, winning a string of awards including "Home Builder of the Year," "Fastest Growing Builder in America," "Best in American Living," and the list goes on and on. Featured in magazines like Professional Builder and Big Builder, the company expects to achieve revenues in excess of $600 million in the next 12 months, building approximately 1,250 new homes.
Part of the company's secret to success is the decision, from the very beginning, to concentrate on a very unique niche — the urban infill market, which Olson refers to as "in-town housing."
"We felt that staying in urban markets and focusing on the redevelopment space would be something that is unique. And the assumption proved to be true," states Olson.
Steve Olson is known for
building quality housing
such as the Madison Walk
community in Pasadena's
urban core center.
The Olson Company has been especially successful in partnering with cities and local communities, turning municipal planners, redevelopment agents, and elected government officials into "partners" and development advocates. Not only does Olson work closely with cities to solve problems, but the company also asks neighborhood residents what they want.
Some in the industry have referred to the Olson Company as a public-service provider. With offices in northern California, Ventura County, Los Angeles County, Orange County, and San Diego, the company's professional staff believes their developments serve a higher purpose, recycling underutilized properties into new neighborhoods. They believe they are not merely a manufacturer of housing, but a "creator of neighborhoods," building communities around job centers and within walking distance to a city's amenities. Some Olson communities are only a block away from public transit and offer affordable new housing to families and first-time homebuyers where no new housing has been built for two decades.
Olson says the company is not just about creating buildings. "One of the things I've come to appreciate is that the staff is driven by a sense of mission." He cites as an example an MBA graduate from Columbia University who worked on his staff. The individual grew up in a garage and devoted his life to building homes for people so they will never have to live the way he did. "There are people who come to our company for different reasons," says Olson, "but the sense of mission, purpose, and service is core to what they do here."
Pictured with the graduate campus in the
background, James R. Wilburn, School
of Public Policy dean, and Olson continue
to collaborate on studies of California's
underserved housing needs.
Olson is a longtime friend of Pepperdine. His relationship with the University began several years ago when he was looking to go back to school for a graduate degree. Around that time, he was introduced to the founding dean of the recently formed Graduate School of Business, Don Sime. Dean Sime was interested in creating a key executive program and asked Olson to help recruit one of the very first classes in the downtown business section of Los Angeles.
Olson remembers, "I met with Don and his plan sounded intriguing. So between the two of us, we actually put together maybe 25 people to start a program in the downtown area. This was actually the precursor to the Presidential/Key Executive MBA program."
In the last 30 years, Olson has remained close to Pepperdine by serving on various boards, beginning with the business school Board of Visitors and later the University Board. Most recently, Olson brought his company's skills to Pepperdine when the graduate student dorms, faculty/staff townhouses, and executive homes were being planned for the Drescher Graduate Campus. His team was asked early on to look at site plans and participate in early conceptual drawings. When the construction phase began, the Olson Company worked closely with Pepperdine to finish the project on time and under budget.
"The new faculty townhouses and graduate living facilities on the Drescher Graduate campus are already becoming a showcase for their workmanship," says James R. "Jim" Wilburn, dean of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy (SPP). "This not only reflects Steve Olson's passion for excellence as a business leader, but his long-standing pride in his relationship to Pepperdine."
Pepperdine's Drescher Graduate
Campus student housing
This connection continues to grow. His company works annually with the SPP to fund studies that deal with some aspect of the underserved housing needs in the state. The company shares the information it gets with cities it works with. Recently, they funded a major study to be published this fall by the School of Public Policy, based on the concept of "urban villages" and dealing with the empowerment of local neighborhoods related to redevelopment. In the future, the company plans to do more studies on the housing needs of the Latino population.
"We are interested in what we fund at Pepperdine as an educational tool for cities," says Olson, "And I would say, secondarily, that applying a degree in public policy to something in the redevelopment sector actually has positive applications. It's not just about relating public policy to a national forum. We think there's a lot more excitement and practicality in it being applied locally."
Out of 463 cities in California, the Olson Company has worked with 72 of them. So the company still has plenty of room to grow. Olson's two sons are following in their father's footsteps. Todd is the current president of Olson Community Development, which is the land acquisition, forward-planning part of the Olson Company. Scott is the president of Flowline, a technology company Olson owns.
But after 17 years of success as a developer, it looks like Steve Olson may be ready to conquer yet another industry. "My wife, Brenda, and I have a second home and a vineyard in the town of Templeton that we're expanding. It's called Briarwood Vineyards. Within a year, we'll start construction on a winery." If the past serves as any indication of the future, Olson should be harvesting new rewards in no time.