Pasadena’s C.W. Driver, Oldest California General Contractor, and the Keys to Longevity

Published : Friday, May 31, 2019 | 1:50 AM

[Updated] On this, its centennial, builder C.W. Driver claims to be the oldest general contractor in Southern California still in business. Its license number is 102.

“It is fun to go down to the Building Department and see what happens when they ask for your license number,” said company President Karl Kreutziger. “Most of them are six digits. You tell them ‘102’ and they raise an eyebrow.”

C.W. Driver is a general contractor and builder founded in 1919. Its most prominent presence has been in the Los Angeles area, its headquarters in Pasadena.

The company has 360 employees on its Pasadena campus, that primarily manage the process of construction.

C.W. Driver President Karl Kreutziger.

“If Cal State L.A. says ‘come out and build this’ we may only have five employees on that site, but we will be managing hundreds of subcontractors,” said Kreutziger. C.W. Driver administers the process of building in partnership with architects and contracting outfits. It is the brains of the building operation.

“Ultimately, relationships are what really drive the success of our business,” Kreutziger concluded. “Most of our work is with repeat clients that hire us very early in the process. They have an idea, they have a vision, they get an architect, and we are right there next to them to work through the best way to build that project.”

Taking stock at the century point in a company’s life will invariably lead to a discussion about beginnings, longevity, survivability, and the ability to adapt.

“The founder of our company, Clarence Wike Driver (1919-1963), was working as an architect for a renowned firm in downtown Los Angeles, AC Martin, which I think is the oldest architecture firm Los Angeles,” said Kreutziger, “and he decided in 1919 to venture out on his own.”

The nascent C.W. Driver Company was fairly active with building in downtown Los Angeles until the Great Depression. In the post-World War II economy, he explained, it surged to prominence as a building contractor.

C.W. Driver built the historic Wilshire Methodist Church in 1926, the Warner Bros.Theater in 1929, the Olympic Swimming Stadium near the University of Southern California campus in 1932, St. Robert’s Hall’s at Loyola Marymount in 1935, and The Los Angeles Theater in 1939.

The company executed the remodeling of the stately Jonathan Beach Club in 1957, built the Costa Mesa Civic Center in 1966, remodeled the Biltmore Hotel in 1967, constructed a Ralph’s grocery store in Gardena, Bank of America branches, the Newport Beach Civic Center, a seismic retrofit of the Intergenerational Community Center at Exposition Park (2002), and so on.

A long list of landmark structures that make up the urban landscape of the region, built with private and public money alike.

The primary market for the company is education: higher education; K-through-12, public and private. A goodly portion of that work has come from the aforementioned California State University System with which the company has a long-standing relationship.

Locally, throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s, C.W Driver’s work has been in the education business, with a good number of projects at Caltech. “Education is what we’re really good at,” said Kreutziger.

The company played its part in the renovation of downtown Pasadena as well. “There we were taking some of the older buildings and making them into something new,” said Kreutziger.

C.W. Driver has a number of gambling casinos to its credit, the latest being completed in Hemet, Calif. Entertainment sector business includes projects for Sony, Dreamworks, Universal Studios, and Disney.

“We have a very broad, diverse market segment that allows us to weather the changes of direction within the economy,” explained Kreutziger, who added that the passage of recent bond measures, “allows us to have secure clients in the education side that have money set apart to expand.”

On the private sector side, he remarked, “it’s a little harder to anticipate when projects will start and get funded. So I think that diversity has given us the ability to extend the longevity.”

Staying in a complicated business for a hundred years has been possible because of the stability within the company when it comes to leadership.

CEO Dana Roberts is celebrating his 48th anniversary at the company. He got his first W-2 from the company while working for his father, Wayne, who was a superintendent.

“You could say he is born-and-bred C.W. Driver,” said Kreutziger. “He has been an important figure in our company.”

Chief Executive Officer Dana Roberts has been in his post since the 1980s. Richard Freeark, the chief executive officer, also has more than 30 years of experience. The team just lost Bessie Kouvara to retirement in 2018. The chief financial officer had been with the builder for 40 years.

“These are the people that have really pushed our company forward,” said Kreutziger.

With his nine years experience at C.W. Driver, Kreutziger said he feels, “like a new kid on the block, but very aligned with them on how we treat other people, how we take care of them, how we establish a relationship-oriented company culture.”

With years logged in the executive suite, a changing of the guard is inevitable.

To replace them, from outside the company or within, C.W. Driver’s recruiting strategy involves an offer of what it calls an “ownership transfer” or “executive profit interest program.” A kind of employee stock ownership, but just for a handful of employees.

“About 25 people are being brought into the organization this way, that have skin in the game, who will make day-in, day-out decisions that drive our success,” said Kreutziger. The company thinks this type of structure is critical to keeping key individuals within the organization in today’s market.

Kreutziger was interviewed in the aftermath of a May 9 birthday party for C.W. Driver in Irvine, Calif.

“It was really a party for our clients, our trade partners, architects,” he reported. “It was so good to see about 150 people that you work with, because in our business all these people are your great friends and you rely on each other to get to a common ending.”

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