Don Tarbell was 25 when he and his wife started knocking on doors, looking for homes to sell in the mid-1950s.
Decades later, his last name would be seen on offices and “for sale” signs in Southern California.
The real estate patriarch who was to grow to 57 offices and nearly 4,000 commercial agents died on Tuesday February 8. He was 91 years old.
“Real estate was everything to them,” Debbie Stine, Tarbell’s longtime vice president of marketing, said in a 2019 Orange County Register article. “The whole family. It was in their blood.
Tarbell Realtors has built its empire on high volume, its ubiquitous newspaper advertisements, recruiting new agents from the streets and staging lavish Broadway shows at its awards banquets featuring the Rockettes and circus numbers.
“It was an incredible company with an incredible legacy,” said Roula Fawaz, one of Tarbell’s main producers until she left for a rival brokerage in 2012. “There was incredible camaraderie and bonding. like you’ll never see them again.”
In 2019, what was left of the brokerage was sold to Berkshire Hathaway, which acquired the chain’s remaining 20 offices, 1,000 agents and an escrow company.
But Tarbell Realtors’ legacy has not been forgotten. News of Don Tarbell’s death, confirmed by a former district manager for the company, was delivered in heartfelt memorial posts Friday on Facebook.
Estate agents, many of whom credited Tarbell with getting them into the business, praised his leadership, calling him a kind, caring, and ever caring mentor to the family.
“I’ll never forget his smile and his saying” if you have the choice of doing an open house or going to your kid’s baseball game, go to the game. There will be another open house but only one game,” recalled Caroll Olivares who works at ERA Donahoe Realty in Temecula.
Broker Temecula Stormer Simm recalled an awards ceremony at the Anaheim Honda Center. “He greeted me to lead me down the trail, holding my hand,” Simm posted on Facebook. “He leaned over and said, ‘You know you’re my favourite.’ I responded by saying, ‘You tell all your kids in real estate that!’ “
Tarbell loved to party and celebrate his agents. Beginning in 2001, he began renting venues like the Arrowhead Pond (now Honda Center) and the Disneyland Hotel Grand Ballroom to stage elaborate performances, featuring excerpts from Broadway musicals like “Les Miserables and “The Lion King,” performances from a 98-piece orchestra and showbiz luminaries like Bernadette Peters and Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell.
In 2005, 30 Rockettes performed the Radio City Music Hall holiday show for Tarbell and his team in Anaheim.
The shows have been a staple of the company’s annual awards banquet for over a decade. Tarbell continued the extravaganzas even during the housing crisis, former Tarbell president Tina Jimov-Red said.
“We’re not going to show them that we’re going through tough times,” Jimov-Red said, quoting Don Tarbell. “No matter what, we will always recognize our agents because they are the ones who keep us afloat.”
The business was started by Don’s father, Patrick Frank Tarbell, but it would take Don’s efforts in the 1950s, with his wife Betsy by his side, to extend the company’s roots into the dynasty it became.
The couple moved to California in 1955 and started a door-to-door campaign. By the late 1960s, the Santa Ana-based Tarbell chain had 10 offices in South Bay towns such as Torrance, Westchester, and Palos Verdes.
Tarbell then made a profit by expanding into the escrow, title and mortgage business from 1964 to 1975, directing customers to these ancillary services.
“For years, Tarbell has been considered an industry standard for bundled services,” said Pat Veling, president of real estate consultancy Real Data Strategies.
The Tarbells’ three children also joined the company, with their daughter managing low-production offices and their youngest son overseeing the company’s mortgage operations. The two would later have a role in running the overall operation.
From the start, Don Tarbell claimed his father’s experience as part of his legacy.
“41 YEARS OF SERVICE!” a 1967 South Bay newspaper ad proclaimed, referring to sales dating back to the mid-1920s. A new home could be purchased with just $3,750 down, according to the ad. A “charming” three-bedroom, two-bathroom GI home is listed at $17,950 – with no down payment.
“Tarbell was a juggernaut in the Orange County market,” said Rich Cosner, a former Tarbell rival and now consultant to real estate brokers. “They had great offices, great agents, strong managers, and a massive advertising presence.”
Information regarding services and survivors is pending.