RELATIONSHIPS FORGED AFTER MAN’S SON DIED INTEGRAL TO COMPANY’S FORMATION
Article By Eric Wolff, visit the original article post.
The passing of a young man nine years ago has brought together four men of diverse ages and backgrounds to form kirE Companies, a new building and development firm in Poway.
In 2002, Erik Baumgartner, 21, died in an auto accident near Arizona State University, where he was enrolled. Nine years later, his friends still slip into the present tense when they speak of him, and both they and his father get tears in their eyes when they remember him.
But his death helped create new relationships among friends and Erik’s father to form a new company. In the midst of the slowest market in new houses in decades, they’ve secured land for a pair of projects in Escondido and Ramona. They had the skills, the investors and the land; all they needed was a name for the new company.
“It was (Baumgartner’s partner) Josh’s idea to name it ‘kirE.’ E-R-I-K is kirE spelled backwards,” said Ken Baumgartner, the elder statesmen of the group. “It means a lot to us.” It’s pronounced “KY-er” to rhyme with “fire.”
Without Erik, it’s hard to imagine the group coming together. Ken, Erik’s father, spent 31 years building housing subdivisions for Corky McMillin Companies in Chula Vista; Jason Shepard, 31, was Erik’s roommate at Arizona and a specialist in the entitlement process; and Josh Santa, 35, a homebuilder, married a longtime family friend of Ken’s. Only Bryan Nimer, the chief financial officer, had no connection to Erik, though he knew Shepard from time they both spent working at Corky McMillin.
Baumgartner in some ways is the linchpin for the company, bringing his decades of experience and access to investors to the firm. The Navy brought him from his native New Jersey to San Diego in the 1960s. And after stints as a real estate agent and a county government bureaucrat, he found his footing working for Corky McMillin for the next three decades, mostly on developments in Chula Vista.
As his most recent contract wound up last year, he decided the time had come to slow down, especially as the company was going to have to survive a deep slump in housing before it could grow again. Builders sold 331 new houses in North San Diego County in 2010, a 94 percent drop from a 2005 peak, according to the San Diego County Assessor’s office.
“It would be another six, seven years before things get going again, and I just didn’t have that in me,” said Baumgartner, 66.
So he retired and teamed up with Santa on a few small house-building deals.
Santa’s father was a house framer based in Ramona, and Santa worked for him growing up. After high school, he joined the firm full time before forming his own general contracting company in 2002. Santa met his future wife, Lindsay, in high school. Lindsay’s father is Baumgartner’s best friend, and the couple hung out with Erik and his friends, especially when Erik raced his four-wheeler at desert competitions.
Two months after Erik’s death, Santa’s younger brother Zack died, and Baumgartner turned up for the funeral.
“He knew what it was like to go through loss,” Santa said.
The two men stayed close through the years. Santa’s company hung on through the recession, and he and Baumgartner started teaming up on small side deals. Today his staff forms the core of kirE’s dozen employees.
The two decided to form a more formal company when they stumbled into Black Canyon Estates’ ready-to-build 160-acre site in Ramona, abutting the Cleveland National Forest. They brought Shepard, Erik’s former roommate, on board, and Shepard brought Nimer.
The group is excited about the Ramona project: The plots are at least two acres each, and the five layouts they’ve designed maximize views, Santa said. The houses will start relatively small, with some floor plans starting at 1,900 square feet, but they’re designed to accommodate additions as the economy improves, Santa said.
“We’re trying to give the market what it can afford,” Santa said.
Then in February they acquired City Square on Centre City Parkway and Second Avenue in Escondido, a former Barratt American project that had long been unfinished. They redesigned the 102-unit plan —- only 18 were built —– to accomodate town houses, instead of a high-rise.
Santa and Shepard said that Erik would have certainly been a partner in kirE, under other circumstances.
“He’s the glue for this place,” Santa said.