Don Tarbell, patriarch and mentor of Tarbell Realtors, dies – Orange County Register


Don Tarbell was 25-years-old when he and his wife started ringing doorbells, looking for homes to sell in the mid-1950s.

Decades later, his family name would be seen on offices and “for sale” signs across Southern California.

The patriarch of the real estate business that would grow to 57 offices and nearly 4,000 sales agents died Tuesday, Feb. 8. He was 91.

A former colleague and friend on Friday called Tarbell a visionary who saw real estate trends before they happened.

“He was ahead of his time on so many things,” said Deborah Stine, a longtime marketing executive for Tarbell. “He had this innate sense of knowing where the market was going and what to do next.”

Tarbell, she said, was a “genius” at marketing, something that helped Tarbell grow the business from city to city across Southern California.

Born in Oregon in 1930, Tarbell came to Los Angeles in the early 1950s as a student at USC. He and wife Betsy expanded the real estate company founded in 1926 by Don’s father, Frank Tarbell, and grew it ten-fold in California. By the late ’60s, the chain had 10 offices in Torrance, Westchester and Palos Verdes.

The familiar Tarbell Realtors signs could be seen across Southern California for decades. The company, which grew to 57 offices under the leadership of Don Tarbell, was sold in 2019. (File photo by Nick Koon / Staff Photographer)

The California franchise, which would shift its base to Orange County, was built on high volume, full-page newspaper ads, recruiting new agents off the street, and for staging lavish Broadway shows at its awards banquets.

“This was an amazing company with an amazing legacy,” said Roula Fawaz, a top Tarbell producer until she left for a rival brokerage in 2012. “There was amazing camaraderie and bonding like you’ll never see again.”

In 2019, the brokerage was sold to Berkshire Hathaway, which acquired the chain’s remaining 20 offices, 1,000 agents and an escrow company.

But the legacy that was Tarbell Realtors has not been forgotten.

Joe McGowan, a former president with the company, credited Don Tarbell for his efforts to train and inspire agents across the region.

“He was a very charismatic, insightful person,” McGowan said. “He had a gift to really discern things that most people would ignore.”

Real estate agents, many of whom credited Tarbell for launching them into the business, hailed his leadership, calling him a mentor who was kind, nurturing and always thoughtful of family.

“I’ll never forget his smile and his saying ‘if you have the choice of doing an open house or going to your child’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.

Tarbell loved a good party and celebrating his agents. Starting in 2001, he began renting venues like the Arrowhead Pond (now Honda Center) and Disneyland Hotel Grand Ballroom to stage elaborate performances. Seen here, the Rockettes perform Feb. 24, 2005. (File photo: Bruce Chambers, Orange County Register)

Tarbell loved a good party and celebrating his agents. Starting in 2001, he began renting venues like the Arrowhead Pond (now Honda Center) and Disneyland Hotel Grand Ballroom to stage elaborate performances, featuring excerpts from Broadway musicals like “Les Miserable” and “The Lion King,” performances by a 98-piece orchestra, and show biz luminaries like Bernadette Peters and Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell.

In 2005, 30 Rockettes performed the Radio City Music Hall holiday spectacular for Tarbell and his team in Anaheim.

Tarbell built profits by expanding into the escrow, title and mortgage business from 1964 through 1975, funneling clients into those ancillary services.

“For years, Tarbell was considered an industry standard for bundling services,” said Pat Veling, president of real estate consulting firm, Real Data Strategies.

The Tarbells’ three children also joined the business, their daughter turning around low-producing offices and their youngest son overseeing the company’s mortgage operation. Both later would have a role in running the overall operation.

McGowan said Friday that the outpouring of memories from friends and former colleagues this week reminded him of the great reach Don Tarbell had over the years.

“Don‘s legacy will live on in the countless lives he touched and causes he supported,” said McGowan.

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