Marvin L. “Buzz” Oates, who built a $2,000 investment in a locksmith shop into one of the nation’s great fortunes through building and commercial development, died Saturday at his Sacramento home. He was 90.
Oates, a fourth-generation Sacramentan, was the founder and driving force behind companies that landed him on the 2005 Forbes magazine list of the nation’s wealthiest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $900 million. But he also was a devout Christian who spent countless hours devoting himself to charitable causes and giving away millions.
“He was an institution,” said former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness, who knew Oates for 25 years. “A man who enjoyed a high degree of success and boldly stepped up to support causes in which he had a strong belief. He will be missed.”
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson called Oates a “true icon,” writing in a message on Twitter that “Buzz taught me charity starts at home and no matter how successful you are, helping others should always come first.”
Oates had been in failing health recently and had been hospitalized several times before returning to his home near Fair Oaks Boulevard and Fulton Avenue about three weeks ago, his son, Phil, said. He had been able to talk with friends and family until about a week ago.
“He was very much at peace in his life and was really happy to make the next journey,” his son said.
Buzz Oates was born July 25, 1923, in Sacramento into a family of modest means. His father was a sheet-metal worker and his mother a homemaker. He earned his lifelong nickname from his older brother, who could not pronounce “Marvin,” Phil Oates said.
“So anybody who called and asked for ‘Marvin,’ we knew they didn’t really know him,” said Phil Oates, who is chairman of of the Buzz Oates Group of Companies.
Oates worked virtually all of his life, including a stint as a bombardier flying missions over Japan during World War II. He returned from the war with $2,000 he had saved from his military pay and opened A&A Key Shop in 1946 with a business plan that included selling keys door to door for 41 cents. That grew into A&A Key and Builders Supply, which sold “everything from nails to televisions” and eventually became Buzz Oates Enterprises, according to a company history.
Oates made his fortune through commercial development and may have been best known for his “Buzz Boxes” – simple, squat warehouses made of tilted-up concrete slabs.
“Warehouses are the finest product in the real estate industry today,” Oates said in a 1996 Bee profile. “They don’t depreciate. They just need a coat of paint once in a while.”
But his influence on the Sacramento region’s development went far beyond such bland buildings. His interests over the years included business parks, shopping centers such as Florin Mall and Country Club Centre, bowling alleys, skating rinks and an air-conditioning company.
He sold much of the land where UC Davis Medical Center now sits and renovated the old Senator Hotel downtown. His business investments included property in Arizona, Texas and Utah, and in 2010 his company’s annual revenue was more than $75 million. He also helped jump start development in West Sacramento.
“Buzz Oates invested in West Sacramento before it was cool,” West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “Riverpoint Center (Ikea), Southport Biz Park & much more. Big legacy. Godspeed.”
Over the years, his family and business partners attributed his success to two factors: his dedication to hard work and his love of dealing with people.
“Certainly, you don’t get to be a man of his stature without being driven at an earlier age,” Phil Oates said. “He had a tremendous work ethic … Up until his final days he would stay informed on the business activities.”
But Oates was as devoted to religious causes and charities as he was to business, quietly doling out millions of dollars to various causes through a $17 million foundation he created that funded, among other causes, a safehouse in Lincoln called Mercy Ministries that offers services to women recovering from sexual abuse, drug issues and other difficulties. The two-story building opened in 2009 thanks to a $3 million donation from Oates, and his family asks that in lieu of flowers donations in his name be made to Mercy Ministries of America, P.O. Box 111060, Nashville, TN 37222.
“I think people would be surprised how much money in his life he did give away,” Phil Oates said. “He really believed in flying under the radar and to give without getting a lot of the credit for it, but he started a lot of the major churches around Sacramento.”
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Oates “will long be remembered in Sacramento as a prolific builder and an even more prolific philanthropist. Our community will miss him.”
Oates was married twice. His first marriage to his wife Theda lasted more than 25 years and produced his son and four daughters before ending in divorce in 1974. His second wife, Paula Winn, died of cancer in 1992.
Oates never seemed to slow down, even after a 1983 heart attack suffered while jogging. He dealt with a variety of health challenges in later years, including diabetes and a 2009 cancer scare. But even with his devotion to overseeing minute business details, he lived a large life that included an occasional glass of fine wine or cigar and far-flung travels.
In 2010, he happily showed off his “Africa room” to a Bee reporter, filled with art he had collected on his trips to the continent.
But Phil Oates said his father never wanted to be gone too long because he constantly wanted to focus on business.
That changed somewhat in recent years, with Oates devoting himself more and more to his 14 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren, said Kathy Fairrington, one of his four daughters.
“He loved to spend time with his family,” Fairrington said. “I’m going to miss him because he loved to hug people.”
In addition to Phil Oates and Fairrington, Oates is survived by daughters Debbie, Marilyn and Judy.
Oates is the latest titan of Sacramento business to die in recent years. His lifelong friend, developer Joe Benvenuti, died in May 2012. Businessman Mort Friedman died seven months later, and construction magnate Henry Teichert died in October.
Phil Oates said his father was proud of the potential for progress that the new Sacramento Kings arena planned for downtown Sacramento offers.
Phil Oates became a minority owner in the team last year as part of Sacramento’s fight to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle, but he said Saturday that he didn’t agree to do so until he had checked with his father, who had been business partners with Benvenuti, who helped bring the Kings to town and build what was then known as Arco Arena.
“Growing up he always told me, never invest our money in a pro sport, and I had to ask him on this go-around and he saw the value of it this time around,” Phil Oates said.
“He jammed a lot into 90 years,” Oates added, but noted that his father missed one item on his bucket list: meeting new Kings owner Vivek Ranadive.
“That was one of his bucket things, he wanted to meet Vivek,” Oates said.
The Oates family is planning a viewing Thursday at Capital Christian Center, 9470 Micron Ave., from 10 a.m. to noon. A memorial service will take place there at 1 p.m., followed by a reception.