Passing the Baton

How a grieving daughter stepped in to keep a growing company on top after the death of a beloved father, mentor, and friend

Dorene C. Dominguez (far left) knew she had big shoes to fill when she took over as president and CEO of Vanir Group of Companies, Inc. Her father, Frank, started Vanir Development Company in 1964 and was involved in every aspect of the company. He suffered a fatal heart attack in 2004. “He was a mentor to many,” she says, “and we had to figure out how to move on without him.” (PHOTO: Diana Miller)

When Dorene C. Dominguez took over as president and CEO of Vanir Group of Companies, Inc., she knew she had big shoes to fill. Her father, Frank, was a second-generation son of Mexican immigrants. Her mother, Gisela, was born in a region of Germany ceded to Poland after World War II. She secured a visa, worked as a maid, and defected to the West. Frank served in the United States military, moved his family to California, learned the real-estate business, and set out to achieve the American dream. He started the Vanir Development Company in 1964. Today, his daughter oversees several companies that have done more than $10 billion in business.

Dominguez grew up in the family business, often working alongside her late brother. “As children, we ran around and played games, but always noticed how my dad ran the company,” Dominguez recalls. “He was very dedicated to the company and its employees.” Each year, the Dominguez siblings accepted more work responsibilities, and each family member was expected to complete tasks living up to the eldest Dominguez’s high standards. Vanir, she says, is a big part of the family’s shared identity and legacy.

Consejos de Papá

“From a very early age, I always remember my father stressing the importance of family and giving back to the community. In establishing mission statements for each of the Vanir companies, my father insisted upon a statement of business objectives and a commitment to giving back to communities in which we live and work. We have continued that tradition in each new Vanir company.”
—Dorene C. Dominguez

Working at Vanir was not only her father’s expectation, but a dream come true for Dominguez—an experience that changed unexpectedly in 2004. That’s when Frank suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving his grieving daughter to run the company he’d spent a lifetime building. “I always knew I would be working side-by-side with my father, but I never imagined myself leading the company without him,” Dominguez says. Her family and Vanir colleagues rallied around her, giving her the necessary support to step into a leadership role.

Frank, who was involved in every aspect of the company, left behind a profound void. “He was a mentor to many,” Dominguez says, “and we had to figure out how to move on without him.” Dominguez tends to consult with trusted advisors to set a strategic direction through transparency and collaboration. While Frank had filled the real-estate development and construction management company with capable people to help her lead, Dominguez felt a tremendous responsibility to the company, its employees, and their families. She didn’t merely want to maintain what her father had worked so hard to build—she wanted to take it to the next level.

To do so, she spent the first year working with colleagues to develop a sustainable growth strategy. Instead of always asking “what Frank would have done,” they leaned to trust the good business sense he had instilled in them. That, Dominguez says, was a turning point. She became more confident and realized the company was “primed and ready to go.” To grow, she needed to help Vanir diversify its business lines. Vanir Construction Management had been working primarily in justice facilities and school construction. Dominguez added transportation and health care, which has now become the biggest market segment. The company also increased core competencies in areas like risk construction and design-build leasebacks.

One of Dominguez’s biggest initiatives came in 2008, when she launched Vanir Energy, LLC. The sustainable and alternative energy company helped its affiliated Vanir companies continue an upward trajectory. The Vanir companies now employ more than 350 individuals. The corporation has 23 offices in the United States and the Middle East and is the leading provider of K-12 education facilities in California.

One of Dominguez’s most notable undertakings is the planning and design of a 1,500-bed medical facility in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. This Vanir Construction Management project is three to four times larger than most domestic medical centers. To be completed in 2017, the $1.2 billion King Khalid Medical City plan includes oncology, neurology, cardiology, and other specialized facilities.

Dominguez is a member of several community organizations and boards, but achieved a surprising milestone in 2013. After the owners of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings tried to relocate to Seattle, she joined with other business leaders to form a public/private partnership to acquire the team and finance a new arena. In doing so, she became the first and only Latina owner in the NBA.

Dominguez, her family, and its company are doing better than they ever thought possible—a fact they owe to the patriarch of the Dominguez family. Dominguez has created the Vanir Foundation to honor his memory. The group seeks to provide “pathways to success by improving the learning environment for underserved school children.” Through it, underserved schools receive materials and resources to help their students succeed.”