Bob Olson, builder/developer extraordinaire, continues to open landmark properties.
Raised, by his own admission, in a blue collar upbringing, Bob Olson lost his father at a young age and was raised by a stay-at-home mother (who later worked at Lockheed Martin soldering transistor chip boards) and a stepfather, who was a carpenter and taught him to wield a hammer and nails as early as eight years of age.
Born in the San Francisco bay area, the family moved a lot.
“We moved twice during my freshman year and I attended four high schools,” Olson says. “But as I look back, it made me adjust and taught me how to make friends.”
He worked throughout high school with his stepdad, who opened a small remodeling company. His senior year, he worked the graveyard shift at a local furniture manufacturing company, and, after graduating, Olson took a day job as a carpenter through the end of the summer.
“My dream was to go to college to become an architect,” he shares. “My parents couldn’t help me financially, so I was on my own.”
So, Olson joined the carpenter’s union and tried junior college, but he couldn’t stay awake for classes. Soon, he rallied some of his buddies and made a deal with a general contractor to do framing projects. Unfortunately, around this time, he broke his leg and was out for six months, but that didn’t stop him. On crutches, Olson showed his friends how to frame buildings and homes, and soon they were all making money.
In 1979, at age 23, he married his high school sweetheart, Tammy, and they bought a home, with a second home following. That same year, with $35,000 in savings, Olson founded R.D. Olson Construction, with the slogan, “Why move when you can improve.” It set the tone for this entrepreneurial man’s future. The family increased with the birth of Bobby in 1980, followed by Melissa in 1982. It was in 1980 that Olson moved to Danville, where he made a good living doing room additions.
In 1981, Olson was introduced to former singer and soon-to-become congressman Sonny Bono, for whom he built the Italian restaurant Bono in Hollywood. With that boost, R.D. Olson Construction was soon building restaurants across the country–Fuddruckers, Chilie’s and more.
“We have now built more than 300 restaurants across the country since we started our business,” Olson says. “Bono’s was the spark to move to Orange County in 1984 to continue building restaurants, like Seafood Broiler and Marie Callenders.”
In 1987, Olson’s construction company began renovating and remodeling hotels. Its first contract, with Hyatt Hotels in Hollywood, prompted work up and down the West Coast.
Two momentous things occurred during this time that changed Olson’s life forever. He joined YPO (Young Presidents Organization) in 1990.
“Joining YPO gave me a sense of what was possible with many members entrepreneurs and leaders of their companies,” he explains. “They were also good family people, and I was attracted by that.”
The other life-changing event occurred in 1992 because Bob regretted not having a college education. The challenge was that he wanted to attain an MBA, bypassing the undergraduate degree. UCLA and UCI said ‘no,’ but after hearing Olson’s business success story, USC gave him the nod.
“The next two years were like being in a candy store,” he shares. “Everything I was learning I was able to implement and make adjustments, and it gave me the confidence for what we were doing.”
While Olson was attaining his MBA at USC between 1992-1994, R.D. Olson Construction doubled in size. The amazing thing was that it was during a real estate depression.
As the economy started to revive in 1997, Olson knew that new hotel construction would start again, and he felt, with his construction experience and name recognition, he would be successful developing hotels to own. It was in 1997 that he launched R.D. Olson Development to do just that.
The rest is history. Starting with building two multi-level hotels in Disneyland and one in Irvine, Olson soon connected with Marriott International, and from there, both his construction and development businesses took off.
Since 2000, R.D. Olson Development has developed more than $1 billion in hotel assets/development. When other companies were waiting out the great recession of 2008-11, Olson was diligently pursuing hotel sites.
Since 2011, the development company has launched 15 hotels in California and Maui, including a 14-story, 250-room flagship Marriott hotel in the Irvine Spectrum shopping center. It will be the first full-service hotel built in South Orange County in nearly 20 years, and is next to a 210-room Courtyard by Marriott that R.D. Olson opened last year. It was no accident that R. D Olson Development was named Marriott Hotel Developer of the Year in 2014.
Other exciting projects in the making include the 250-room Pasea Hotel & Spa project at Huntington Beach’s Pacific City, set to open mid-2016, and one of Olson’s favorite projects–the Lido House boutique hotel in Newport Beach, being built on the city’s former city hall site. It took three years to clear all the hurdles, including the Coastal Commission’s approval, and is set to break ground March, 2016, with the opening scheduled for summer, 2017.
“We are very passionate about this project and want to truly make it special,” Olson says. “Our investors are all from Newport Beach, so it is personal for them as well.”
Olson says his inspiration was the family home he built on Balboa Island, with its Nantucket theme.
“You will feel like you are in someone’s beautiful, upscale home,” he promises.
Olson credits his lovely wife Christyne, who he married in 2003, and with whom he has two children–12-year-old Charlotte and 10-year-old Sutton–with the decorating skills. Their home, which they purchased in 2003 and tore down to rebuild, is always awarded a prize in the Newport Beach Boat Parade’s “Ring of Lights” home decoration competition.
Olson credits his business success to having great teams at both R.D. Construction and R.D. Development.
“Bill Wihelm, who is president of R.D. Construction, and most of his team have been with the company a minimum of 20 years,” Olson says. “They’ve taken the company to a new level.”
And, to that end, Olson’s employees at the construction company own 51m percent of the company.
“I’ll keep a piece of it, but they’re buying me out,” he states. “They deserve it.”
As to R.D. Development, he says his team is at the top of their respective fields, which allows the company to collaborate and successfully execute projects from start to finish.
“My work philosophy, at both companies, is to always be respectful, fair and to reward your people for individual and company success,” Olson says.
Is there retirement in the near future for Bob Olson?
“I don’t know what retirement looks like,” he says. “I love what I do. It’s not work, and I surround myself with a passionate team of people who are motivated and love what they do, too.”
That being said, Olson just bought the Jack in the Box, an end-of-the-block site on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, to build a 17-story hotel.
It doesn’t sound like this inspiring, generous, entrepreneurial man is retiring any time soon!