Some of what makes a small town desirable is often close family ties across generations and a sense of community. Such charm is perhaps best demonstrated at the corner of Tenth Street and B Avenue in the California Plaza building.
Within the building’s well-manicured window box landscapes and curved glass roofing is a bustling office center that houses more than a dozen family-owned-and-operated businesses. Fathers, sons, daughters, uncles, nephews and husbands and wives team up every day to offer the community a multitude of services.
While the building itself has a large footprint, each of the three floors is composed of medium- to small-sized offices, creating a network of small businesses centered around an atrium patio on the first floor, the gathering spot for occasional lunches and annual parties.
Erin Miller, broker associate with Trident Pacific Real Estate, began working for her father, Michael Whittemore, at the firm when she was 16.
“I’d pop by after school to help out or just hang out, and I’d work there in the summers. I grew up in it. I got comfortable, and it felt like home.”
The same is true for Bill Swift, who now manages Swift Escrow after his mother, Sharon, retired. “I was living in Orange County in 1998 and looking to get back to San Diego,” said the Coronado High School (CHS) class of 1979 graduate. “My parents’ business offered me the opportunity to move back down here.”
The building’s location wasn’t new to Swift. Long before he joined his parents’ company — before California Plaza had even been built — there was a small hobby shop on the corner called Special Models, where Swift’s first high school job was selling specialty airplane and ship models. That building was leveled in 1978 to make way for California Plaza.
Lauren Maxam-Thrasher is another Coronado kid who worked on breaks from CHS at her father’s (William Maxam) law office, Maxam Law. “I went from a glorified coffee-grabber back then to becoming an attorney,” said Lauren, who graduated from Thomas Jefferson School of Law (class of 2012) and joined her father at his California Plaza office as the second attorney in his practice.
Brendan McKee, vice president of the McKee Co., followed his father’s career path as well. “Real estate seems to be in our DNA,” said McKee. “I learned a lot through osmosis, listening to my dad put deals together, so for me it seemed like second nature to follow in his footsteps.”
Margaret Herring and her father, David, began Herring & Herring Law in 2001 — but she began working in his office as a receptionist in 1989 (and even filing papers in his office long before that, when she was 8). After completing paralegal school at University of San Diego she became the firm’s paralegal for three years, but eventually became “bored and frustrated.” She explained, “I was doing all the work, but the attorneys were having all the fun. I’d write the briefs and arguments, but they got to go to court to deliver them.” So, she took night classes and got her law degree from Thomas Jefferson School of Law. “We have now been working together for almost 26 years, and it all started as a two-week temporary receptionist job!”
Likewise, 25 years ago when Jimbo Rowe was looking for a reason to leave Washington, D.C., where he was selling real estate, and return to San Diego, he wanted to join forces with his father, Coronado native Lionel Rowe (born here in 1932). “I said, ‘Sure! But you’re gonna have to start at the bottom,’” said Lionel. A quarter of a century later, the father-son duo operates the real estate firm of Simcal Properties. “Jimbo is active, fun to be with, and devoted to the family,” said the elder Rowe. “And you can’t beat the enthusiasm and esprit de corps that comes with his youth.”
Lionel Rowe shows his devotion (and, in fact, his own esprit de corps) to family not only in business but also on the tennis courts: he frequently plays with his twin grandsons Charlie and Billy (Jimbo’s sons), who are highly lauded tennis players (Charlie holds the only double CIF championship in CHS history). In December, Lionel and Billy Rowe will attempt to reclaim their titles to the USTA’S Hard Court Grandfather/Grandson Championship, which they won in 2012. Tennis has transcended generations in the Rowe family: Jimbo played at University of Redlands; Lionel played at University of Virginia and Lionel’s father played for U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis; time will tell if real estate does as well.
Jack Dale, agent for State Farm insurance in the building, echoed the sentiment about his daughter, Jordanne Dale, who’s worked for him since 2008: “She’s a shot of energy. She’s always happy — and I’m grateful to have her here.”
Jack Dale has been quietly operating State Farm in Coronado since 1992 (though he’s been a State Farm agent since 1988) but he is also involved in San Diego County government. A resident of Santee, he served on that city’s city council from 1986 through 1992, when he was elected mayor. He served two terms as mayor (1992-2000) and then returned to city council where he continues to serve today. He has also served as that city’s representative on the SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments) board of directors since 1992. This past year he has served as SANDAG Chair.
And he does it all in style: “He arrives at the office every day in his red T-Bird,” said Jordanne. (He used to have a yellow one; it broke down last year so he replaced it with a red one.)
Eric Bauer, broker with Ocean Breeze Realty, Inc., (CHS ’96), spent a decade in Scottsdale, Ariz., but was drawn back to San Diego and joined his father, Bill Bauer, in real estate. The senior Bauer was once property manager of California Plaza and worked for Trident Pacific and the McKee Co., before setting up a home office.
“When Eric wanted to join we couldn’t both fit in my little home office, so I bought this suite (312),” said Bill Bauer, who already owned and was renting out the suite next door.
“One of the best things about working with my dad is the flexibility,” said Eric Bauer, whose three boys are ages 6, 3, and 1. Plus, there’s a baby due in March. “If the kids are ever sick and I’m needed at home or to be around for a special occasion, I can be. No way could I have had the flexibility to spend time with my children where I was working back in Arizona.”
Lauren Maxam-Thrasher shared the same sentiment: “When I was growing up, my dad always was around; he was the ‘soccer dad.’ That was appealing to me as something that I wanted to do for my own kids someday,” she said. She now occasionally brings her 20-month-old daughter, Jillian, to work. Her father considers this one of the best perks of having his daughter as a colleague: “I get to see my granddaughter more often!” he said, beaming.
Tami Sandke’s daughters, Emma and Clare, both in high school, work in her law office on weekends and during holiday and summer breaks. “They file, copy and help with computer processing, where they know way more than I do,” she said, noting that both daughters are efficient and focused. “I do think they are more responsible at home after having worked in the office.”
Sandke said it’s the family steadfastness she couldn’t do without. She pointed to her husband, Bill (owner of Crown City Photography), as an indispensable partner in running her business. “I could never do this without him,” she attested. “In 2009, my secretary moved to West Africa and, even though I hired a temp, Bill stepped in and helped with whatever needed to be done — even answering phones and a host of administrative duties. That is around the time I began receiving treatment for breast cancer, and Bill even started going to court for me and to the County Recorder to file papers. He helped me with whatever needed to be done.”
Not only is the building full of families running businesses, but those families are growing into third generations. “When I had my twin boys in January of 2006, I was able to set up a nursery in the office, where they were with me from the time they were 9 weeks old to 3 years old,” Miller said. “We joked that we’d have them answering phones by the time they were 5. We have so many clients that have known us for so long that often they’d just come in to the office to see the babies.”
Likewise, Miller noted, when Lauren Maxam-Thrasher brings in her daughter or Charles and Linda Hayes have their grandchildren visiting, the whole building goes to their offices to see the kids. “It really is a big family,” she said.
And then there are colleagues who have become family: When Michael Coletta was dating his now wife, Elisa, and working through the ranks to become a certified financial planner, he ran into some computer issues. Elisa introduced Coletta to her uncle, Marcos Castaneda, owner of Emerald City Computers, located on the ground floor of California Plaza. “I was hooked from the second I walked in,” Coletta said. “From the assembly, trouble shooting and networking to the design aspect, I knew this would be much more fun than banking.”
Coletta soon changed his course of study to Information Decision Systems and approached Castaneda about an internship. “It was really informal, simply stated and to the point: ‘I’ll work for free if you’re willing to teach me,’” Coletta offered. In 18 months, he went from intern to co-owner.
“In that short time Marcos became a business partner, soccer teammate, uncle (by way of marriage), and most of all a trustworthy and loyal friend,” Colleta said, still amazed at how quickly life can shift.
Colleta said that work and social time with his uncle often have blurred lines. “We share experiences and weekend adventures (often spent with joint families). We can cover for each other if one of us has a family matter without worries or pressure. And every day when we close up I say, ‘I’ll see you in 10 minutes, Mr. Marcos,’ because between work and family events the odds are pretty good that I will.”
Ron Beaubien, owner of Crown Island Insurance, works with his wife, Vicki, and his son, Layne, a Stanford University graduate and former Olympic water polo player who has now joined the business. And just in time, too, as Ron, accompanied by Vicki, will soon be traveling the world as chief of staff to the new president of Rotary International.
Ron’s advice for family business success? “Patience, communication, patience, mutual respect for all involved, patience, commitment to ethical business practices, and then a little more patience…”
George Bassola and his wife, Bernadett, own Comfort Keepers, a home care provider in Coronado. Bassola has found that spouses, more so than unrelated business associates, can become so engrossed in their work that they lose track of time. “Suddenly, you realize you’ve almost missed the time to pick up your child from day care!” he cautioned amusedly.
Further, Bassola’s personal family experiences have imbued him with an extra dose of compassion for his work. When his mother fell ill to lung cancer in 2000, he moved back to his homeland of Budapest, Hungary, to be with her. In her final months, he brought in a caregiver, a somewhat unfamiliar concept in Hungary at the time. In 2013, when the opportunity to purchase Coronado Comfort Keepers presented itself, Bassola jumped on it. “Because of my mother, it’s a cause close to my heart,” he said. “I can relate to what the families we serve are going through on a personal level.”
The Bassolas’ children, Gina and George, though very young (4 years and 3 months, respectively) add a bright dimension to the family business. “We are often helping elderly clients who don’t have family nearby — and many of them request that we bring the kids along on our visits,” Bassola commented. He noted that one married couple, ages 101 and 95, “treat them like their own great grandchildren. They play with Gina for hours.”
Spouses Charles and Linda Hayes, who moved their business, Hayes & Associates, into California Plaza in 1991, have a good grip on the work/family relationship. “We have our divided duties, and we go about them and pretend we’re not spouses during the workday,” Linda explained. “At home, Charles can take his work hat off more easily than I can — but I’m getting there.”
Whittemore elaborated on another benefit, a foundation of many family-run businesses: “When things go well, it’s nice to know a relative – in this case, my daughter and the mother of my grandchildren — is the one benefitting.”
He added, “Sometimes in the workplace when you need something done, it can be harder to ask someone you’re not related to for a favor for fear of inconveniencing them. But since Erin and I have been bothering each other for nearly 40 years as father and daughter at this point, I figure asking her for some work favors is no big deal.”
Margaret Herring said of her father, David, “You will never have a partner who has your back and has more interest in seeing you succeed than a family member, especially a parent.” David, in return, said he’s inspired by “Watching Margaret become a better lawyer than I am.”
And Bill Swift said the best thing about working with his mom was how well they got along. “She was very good at what she did — it was an excellent experience to learn from her.”
Marilyn Smith has run her chiropractic practice in the building since 2003. After 28 years of practicing at the corner of Sixth and Orange avenues, the owners of her office building decided to sell the property. She said, “I prayed for a solution to stay in Coronado. Two days later, a patient, who happened to be the vice president of a commercial real estate company, told me three suites in the California Plaza were for sale. They hadn’t even been listed yet.” She shares her practice with her daughter and son-in-law, Tracy and Matt Burks, who met in chiropractic school and joined Smith in 1999. Smith says it’s “the trust factor” that makes running a family business so special.
For McKee Co. President Russ McKee, an added benefit to a multi-generational business is knowing he’ll leave the company he built in good hands when he retires. “My dream was always to pass it on to my children if they had the desire to take it to the next level. Fortunately, it looks like this is coming to pass. After 32 years, this will be an interesting transition, but knowing that Patrick and Brendan are capable and ready for the challenge will make this next step much easier.” But, he quipped, “Now they keep asking me when I’m going to retire!”
Patrick McKee said, “Given his 32 years of experience, it’s always a great compliment when Brendan or I are speaking on the phone with clients and they mistake us for our dad.”
So why does this building in particular bring together so many families? For one thing, it’s comprised of office condos, so business owners can actually own their office rather than rent it. “Financially, in the beginning, it doesn’t pay to own an office as business owner association fees can be so high along with interest, taxes, etc.” said Charles Hayes. “Back when we moved here we paid double what we would have had we been renting, but now that we’ve been here so long, it’s paying off. Moving here was a long-term investment.”
Many of the businesses have been in the building for at least 10 years, and some, such as Hayes, for more than 20.
Russ McKee explained, “Being in the real estate business, we’ve always had a preference to own real estate rather than rent it. The two-block commute to work is also a nice benefit!”
Bill Bauer explained another thing that makes the California Plaza so special: “So many of the businesses here provide services I need. Marilyn Smith is my chiropractor. Margaret Meadows is my dentist. And Emerald City Computer Works is basically my company’s IT department.”
Miller added insight. “Most of the businesses here are based on relationships with clientele. As those clients get older, the kids who’ve joined the company build relationships with those clientele and their children. Both the businesses and the clientele they serve keep passing down from generation to generation.”
And isn’t that what Coronado is all about?