By Mark Mueller
In the mid-1990s, Bill Halford had just been hired by the office division of Newport Beach-based Irvine Co. and was still feeling his away around Orange County’s real estate market.
A close friend, Brett White, a former college roommate and an up-and-coming executive at CB Richard Ellis, where he would take the chief executive role in 2005, invited him to the local office of the area’s largest brokerage partly as a friendly favor, but also to generate more business from the area’s dominant landlord.
The meet-and-greet didn’t go as White had planned. Within a few months, Halford had hired away four of the top brokers at the local office, which is now CBRE Group Inc.
“‘Billy,’” I said, ‘we brought you in to welcome you, not for you to poach our guys,’” White recalled with a laugh last week. “‘But,’” Halford replied, ‘Brett, business is business.’”
Those traits of Halford—a shrewd businessman and negotiator with an eye for talent and the ability to develop and keep friendships in an often cutthroat industry—are some of the reasons he became a standout personality in OC’s real estate sector and larger business community.
“He was a huge fixture in the real estate industry and the business landscape of Southern California,” said James “Watty” Watson, managing partner of Newport Beach-based CT Realty. “He was one of the greatest characters I’ve ever known—he was bigger than life.”
Halford, the longtime chief executive of Newport Beach-based real estate investment firm and developer Bixby Land Co., died last week after an undisclosed illness. He was 58.
Data and Luck
After graduating from the University of California-Santa Barbara, he began his career working for Xerox and IBM in Silicon Valley.
The tech focus would come in handy in his real estate dealings, said White, now chairman and chief executive at Chicago-based brokerage Cushman & Wakefield Inc.
He was “grounded in data” and brought that information with him to business negotiations, White said.
“He thought business success was a combination of having the best data and a little bit of luck. That was one of his mantras—he had a lot of mantras.”
Another one: “You can come to me with your problems, but don’t come unless you have any solutions.”
Halford’s real estate career included stints with PM Realty Group’s Western division and Transpacific Development Co., where he ultimately led most of the company’s operations out of San Francisco. He moved to Irvine Co. in 1994.
Halford spent 12 years at OC’s biggest real estate company, the last five as president of its office division.
He oversaw $2 billion in acquisitions and led development of 8 million square feet of commercial properties.
Irvine Co.’s office and industrial portfolios more than doubled in size during his tenure.
“Bill was a dynamic, innovative and energetic real estate executive and was a valued member of our company,” the company said in a statement last week.
At Irvine Co., Halford developed a “deep Rolodex,” said Robert Brunswick, co-founder and chief executive of Newport Beach-based real estate investment management firm Buchanan Street Partners.
“He was just one call from all the movers and shakers in the industry.”
Learning from Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren and late Transpacific founder Shurl Curci, “two brilliant real estate investors,” said Jay Borzi, managing director of brokerage Eastdil Secured and a longtime friend of Halford, “had a huge impact on him.”
Borzi said, “He was a very savvy investor, but he was evenhanded. He was a win-win guy and wanted to build relationships.”
Early in Halford’s Irvine Co. career, he joined the board of then Long Beach-based Bixby Land, where he had family ties.
He was a fifth-generation Bixby executive. His great-great-grandfather, Jotham Bixby, partnered with fellow sheep farmer James Irvine in the late 1800s to subdivide much of Southern California for ranching and farming.
Real estate “was in his DNA,” Borzi said.
Halford made the full-time move to Bixby in 2006, leaving Irvine Co. to take the chief executive and president roles at Bixby, which he moved to OC.
That was just one change he made to the privately held real estate investment trust, whose investment strategy and portfolio were also overhauled, shedding nonstrategic assets to create what the company now calls a “homogenous investment portfolio of institutional quality office and industrial properties.”
When Halford joined Bixby, the company steered clear of debt, self-financing most projects. It’s now one of the area’s largest investors and has deep-pocketed partners. Last month it announced a $400 million venture with Europe’s AXA Investment Managers to buy West Coast industrial properties over the next few years, focusing on $10 million to $40 million deals.
“His leadership has made an immense impact on the company and has left it positioned for future success,” President Aaron Hill said.
If you’re reading this story at your office building’s recently renovated outdoor area or at a shared interior common spot, some thanks probably should be directed to Halford.
Bixby was at the vanguard of the creative-office redevelopment trend that’s been the rage across OC and other West Coast markets in the recent market cycle, when all types of buildings—obsolete industrial properties, older suburban office parks and the occasional high-rise—have been reimagined to take advantage of California’s weather while providing tenant amenities rarely seen before.
“There is a demonstrated need for this type of space,” Halford told the Business Journal in 2014. “If you’re producing the right kind of (product), the demand is there.”
Art and architecture were among his biggest personal passions, alongside golf.
“He was a visionary with the uses of creative-office space,” said Brunswick at Buchanan Street Partners. Those types of developments “were ideally aligned for Bill and his attributes.”
Bixby has completed over 30 creative-office buildings throughout California and in the Pacific Northwest, deals that brought “significant profits,” Watson said.
“Industrial paid the bills, but he had fun with creative offices,” Borzi said. “They were sexy and showed off his style.”
R.D. Olson Development Chief Executive Bob Olson, who like Halford owns a home on Balboa Island, said, “He was a real forward-looking guy, and he never took himself too seriously.”
Halford’s influence extended beyond real estate. He and White served on the board of Irvine-based apparel company Mossimo Inc. when it was based in Santa Monica in the mid-2000s and company founder Mossimo Giannulli tried to buy back the company, which now licenses clothing to Target Corp. Target said last summer that it will phase out the brand over the following year.
“He was one of my dearest friends in the world,” Giannulli said. “He had incredibly great vision for what could be.
“Even though we were friends, he was a guy that if he didn’t agree with you, he would say something. He had a ton of integrity.”
Halford was also instrumental in the development of the Center for Real Estate at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California-Irvine, serving as chairman of the Real Estate Advisory Board and the Dean’s Advisory Board. He received a lifetime achievement award from the school in 2012.
He was also a member of the advisory board at the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California-Berkeley.
“He was very philanthropic,” said Watson, who served as co-chairman with Halford on UCI’s real estate advisory board.
According to several people who knew him well, Halford felt his longest-lasting mark in the business world would be his work at Bixby.
“He has a lot of legacies. Turning around a 125-year-old company and making it more institutional is a key (one),” said Brunswick, who serves on Bixby’s board.
The board, much like privately held Irvine Co., has been structured to operate much like that of a public firm, Eastdil’s Borzi said.
Bixby’s office and industrial portfolio is now valued at nearly $1 billion.
Halford passed the president role in January to Hill, who joined the company shortly after he did, and also fills the chief operating officer role.
“He was happy to have ended his career there,” Cushman’s White said. “Billy was a strong believer that success was due to the quality of people you hire. I think he was most proud that he was able to find Aaron.”
The company “will be forever better for his contributions,” Hill said.
Halford is survived by his wife, Cindy, daughter Ali, son Bixby, mother, Suzy, and sister, Heidi.
A celebration of his life is planned for later this month.