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H.G. Fenton Company: Building San Diego for more than a century

If there hasn’t been much written about H.G. Fenton Company, it’s because the 103-year-old, family owned firm is more focused on getting things done than talking about its accomplishments.

"The culture is more about what are we achieving on behalf of our employee experience, and therefore our customer experience, and the results we’re achieving on behalf of both, rather than telling the world what we’re doing,” said company President Mike Neal.

Founded by Henry Gilbert Fenton in 1906 from proceeds earned as foreman of the Coronado jetty construction project, the construction company has played an integral role in developing San Diego and was a resource for building some of San Diego’s iconic landmarks. Fenton recognized the need to diversify early on. He purchased Western Salt Company and a 3,200-acre ranch, now known as Eastlake.

In 1946, Fenton turned over the company to his son-in-law Admiral Louis Hunte. Although the founder died in 1951, the company grew significantly over the next several decades. The 1980s were pivotal for the company as it began changing focus. In 1981, it built its first industrial project and soon after began turning the 6,000 acres of land it owned throughout the county into income-producing properties.

In 1988, with Henry Fenton Hunte at the helm, the company brought in Mike Neal to manage its real estate portfolio and development business. By 1998, it had turned its focus entirely to real estate acquisition and development, selling off its material company and salt division. It also began developing multifamily residential projects, including Solana Highlands in Solana Beach and Portofino in Mission Valley.

Contractors for the locally based H.G Fenton Company excavating land in 1913. Photo courtesy of H.G. Fenton Company

In 2001, Neal was named president, the first non-family member to lead the company. Today, in addition to managing an active pipeline of land and commercial projects, H.G. Fenton Company owns and manages more than 4 million square feet of office and industrial space, and 12 apartment communities totaling more than 3,000 units.

Neal said shareholders of the privately held firm and its 150 employees understand the important role the company has played in developing San Diego, and have a strong sense of responsibility to develop projects that benefit the community and potential customers.

While many developers throughout the county, and indeed the nation, were sidelined due to the recession’s tough lending environment, the self-funded firm hasn’t skipped a beat.

"We have a growth plan going forward,” Neal said. “We plan to grow in good times and in bad. We want to continue to grow to create opportunities for our employees and their career growth, and because we are a family owned business, as the family grows, we want to meet their investment needs.”

Late last year, the company acquired Metroplex Business Center in Miramar and, in a separate transaction, Sabre Springs Business Center in Carmel Ranch. In September, the company acquired four National City industrial projects totaling 610,000 square feet from Collins Development Corp.

“The National City portfolio is a terrific addition to our portfolio,” Neal said. “Harry Collins and his group built that project years ago and were very good stewards of that. And we’re pleased they picked us to continue to be good stewards.”

Neal said the property embodies the type of customer H.G. Fenton has throughout its portfolio: entrepreneurs who show up every day, turn on their own lights, and work the hours they need to succeed in a variety of businesses — from working with military bases to distributing candy to engineering firms. It also complements the company’s philosophy to provide San Diego businesses with quality, well-located places to work.

The firm owns nearly 38 vacant acres (eight developable lots) in the Carlsbad Raceway Business Park that are currently planned for light industrial and office use; however, it is in discussions with the city of Carlsbad to potentially re-designate and re-entitle four office/R&D/flex lots to multifamily residents that can accommodate 450 apartment units.

Although Neal said the company is waiting for market conditions and demand to improve in Carlsbad, it currently has two new multifamily projects under construction.

The first is Solterra, a 114-unit eco-friendly apartment community in Scripps Ranch marketed to energy savvy renters. The company worked with Clean Tech San Diego, SDG&E and others to put together the first community in California that will be 100 percent solar-operated.

“This is truly a unique project and will likely serve as a model for the future of what can be done from an energy awareness perspective,” Neal said. “We can’t wait to bring it to market.”

Presently in the framing stage, the first of one-and two-bedroom apartments will be completed next spring. When fully rented, Solterra will bring the total units owned and managed by the company to more than 3,100.

H.G Fenton’s first entry into the downtown market, a mixed-use project named Urbana, is under way on Tenth Avenue, between J Street and Island Avenue. The six-story building will house 71 one-bedroom and 15 two-bedroom apartments along with retail, underground parking, and a sky-deck with views into Petco Park. Urbana has numerous eco-friendly features, and a modern, urban design reflects its downtown location. The first units are expected to be ready in the first quarter of 2014.

“We’ll continue to grow the portfolio, develop new projects and enhance the projects we own, grow our employee base to serve our customers, and help our customers grow and be successful in their business,” Neal said. “We work hard. We don’t want to rest on our laurels.”

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James is an Encinitas-based freelance writer.

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