Dorene Dominguez was ready for a career in politics—not the family business.
But when her father, H. Frank Dominguez, passed away in 2004, she stepped in to pick up the torch.
The chief executive of real estate development and management firm Vanir Group of Cos. has helped grow the business to 400 employees across 17 offices, and her sights are set on making the business a recognizable name nationally.
“I think 17 offices is not enough in terms of really having a national platform,” Dominguez says. “Right now, many people say, ‘Who’s Vanir?’ We’re getting there but are not quite there yet.”
Vanir (pronounced Van-er) operates three subsidiaries that includes construction management, real estate development, and clean energy solutions. It’s completed more than $23B in services and projects while constructing hotels, schools, hospitals, and prisons.
The city of Los Angeles awarded Vanir a $30M, seven-year contract in 2016. The deal is part of L.A.’s $14B capital improvement program at Los Angeles International Airport and Van Nuys Airport. The enterprise is one of the largest public works projects in the city’s history and will be completed by 2023, according to city officials.
Dominguez said it’s tough to find contracts if you’re not a major firm like AECOM and Bechtel but the City of Los Angeles leveled the playing field by offering airport contracts for small, medium, and large businesses.
“Being midsize, we’re kind of awkward,” she says. “We’re not old enough to drink and too old to play with toys [so] it’s very difficult to compete with the big boys.”
However, that may soon change as the company is in the midst of drastically altering the downtown Sacramento skyline. It’s planning to construct a 44-story tower across the street from the Golden 1 Center. Dubbed “Vanir Tower,” it will be the tallest in downtown Sacramento and would house Vanir’s headquarters, an InterContinental Hotel & Resort, and Capital Grille restaurant.
Flying under the radar but not to be overlooked in the announcement of Vanir Tower, the project helped pave the way for Dominguez to become a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings—making her only the second female owner in the NBA and only Latina owner in all of professional sports.
Former Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson approached Dominguez with the opportunity, citing the new sports arena and her plan to construct Vanir Tower. “He said this would be a great investment, I would make history, and it would be great for the community,” she says.
One unexpected surprise following her stake in the team was the boost it would give to her business. “It’s exciting to be a part of the NBA and now I’m in this club where I see consistently deal flow and that means opportunity,” she observes.
Start of a Legacy
Vanir was founded in San Bernardino in 1964. The name comes from Norse mythology and represents health, prosperity, and fertility.
Dominguez said her father started small by first acquiring a duplex then a triplex and eventually, an apartment building that the family also called home.
“We all painted the walls and cleaned the carpets and got it ready for the tenants,” she says. “I mean we really started with modest beginnings.”
Dominguez is a middle child. She has an older brother, Richard, who passed away in 2007, and a younger sister, Diane, who has Down syndrome.
By the late 1980s, Vanir ranked as the eighth largest Hispanic owned business in the U.S. by the Hispanic Business Journal.
The company was taking on large projects in San Bernardino and Texas including a large entertainment mall in San Antonio. The center had the support of former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros and called for an office building, hotel, and theme park.
Being mid-sized, we’re kind of awkward. We’re not old enough to drink and too old to play with toys [so] it’s very difficult to compete with the big boys.
“It was a fabulous idea [and] when entertainment malls were not as common,” Dominguez says. “However, there was a freeway that was being constructed near it and prohibited access.”
The lack of traffic meant no business and impacted the company’s profits. Dominguez said it was a major contributor to the company’s financial woes and it pushed the business into filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1988.
At the time, Dominguez was finishing college at the University of Notre Dame. She was actively involved in the Young Republicans National Federation and her speeches caught the eye of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, chair of the Republican National Convention, who approached Dominguez about running for Congress.
“Working in politics—that’s a hard sport to play in, and though there were a lot of press releases within our community about the bankruptcy, there would’ve been overwhelmingly more negative coverage if I had run for Congress,” she explains.
Dominguez said it’s why she decided to work alongside her brother—to protect her father.
The siblings took over the company and expanded the business, adding Vanir Energy, and after her brother passed she stepped in to take control.
Leaving an Impression
Dominguez said she leans heavily on her executive team to manage the day-to-day as she focuses on the big picture—steering the company to more growth.
The self-described “early riser” starts her day at 4:30 a.m. Her first call is at 7:00 a.m. with President Guy Mehula followed by additional calls to her executive and finance team coupled with meetings throughout the day.
“There is no work-life balance,” Dominguez says. “During Thanksgiving holidays, my dad would talk about business. There was no ‘off’ button. It kind of all blended. So I’ve been unsuccessful [but] I’m happy. I love it.”
The executive also supports a number of organizations including the Dominguez Dream, a nonprofit that supports elementary schools in underserved communities by offering educational programs in science, math, language arts, and engineering.
She sits on a number of boards such as the University of Southern California Lusk Center for Real Estate, Cal Chamber, Pride Industries, KB Homes, and CIT Bank.
It’s important for Dominguez to expose the younger generation to the possibility of a career in business and engineering.
“Many times you have to see someone that looks like you in order to have dreams and be exposed to something different,” she says. “When I’m speaking to children that want to be engineers and their faces light up, I light up. My heart leaps for joy because I know I created a path for somebody.”
But the real estate veteran said she still faces challenges such as not being taken seriously in business meetings because she doesn’t look like a contractor. Yet, Dominguez also views it as an opportunity to educate that person and expel any stereotypes.
Her focus now is to add an office in Florida and Washington, D.C. as well as boost federal contracts—a challenge as the company will have to compete with construction giants like AECOM and Bechtel.
Dominguez is up for the challenge and has a strategy in place. Plus, she has a legacy to continue.
“I’m about discipline, diligence, and success. Not about gambling,” she says. “[Vanir] is something that’s been bestowed to me that I want to take really good care of.”