Leo Robert French couldn’t find his ideal work place, so he decided to create it.
“He was a very successful executive at another company, but he went out on his own,” said his daughter Celia French of Lincoln. “He wanted to create a place where people came to work and cared about each other, more like a family.”
Mr. French, who started Placer Title Co., was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011. He died Monday in Rocklin at age 83.
Born on April 26, 1930, in Hoople, N.D., he joined the Army in 1948 and served in the medical corps. He was stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and was discharged after three years. He then went to college, graduating from University of North Dakota with a degree in philosophy in 1955. While he was in college, he also acted in a theatrical company.
In 1955, Mr. French married his college sweetheart, Eileen Hammerel, in Mandan, N.D. After graduating from college, he went into the insurance business, working for Mutual of Omaha, first in Omaha, Neb., then in Minneapolis.
In 1960, he moved to Danville after he was recruited by a friend to work for North American Title, which was purchased by Transamerica Corp. in 1964. Over the next 13 years, Mr. French worked his way up from escrow branch manager to Northern California manager.
In 1973, he resigned from Transamerica and moved to Auburn, where he started Placer Title Co. with five employees. The workers split their time between offices in Roseville and Auburn.
Under the umbrella of its parent company, Mother Lode Holding Co., the business has expanded to 700 employees in 50 offices in seven states.
Marsha Emmett Spence, CEO of Placer Title Co., recalled being mentored by Mr. French when she started working at the company in 1977.
“He was a really fun guy to work for – he was a partner and supporter for his employees and very collaborative,” she said. “The most important thing he taught me was humility. Around here, a big title means that you have a lot more people you should be serving – that really was his mantra.”
Placer Title Co. is licensed to operate in all of California’s 58 counties. After the parent company was formed in 1977, the business expanded to other states, using different names. It opened its first out-of-state office, North Idaho Title, in 1993. Montana Title and Escrow was set up in 2002, followed by Wyoming Title and Escrow in 2005. Two national companies were also created: National Closing Solutions in 2000 and Premiere Reverse Closings in 2008. A specialized local company, Short Sale Advantage, was also formed in 2008.
While Placer Title Co. has played a key role in commercial development in various cities, including Sacramento, it is probably better known for serving the real estate broker community.
“He had a great reverence for real estate agents – he felt that they worked very, very hard,” Spence said of Mr. French. “We handled their livelihood, so we need to pay attention to them. It’s how they made a living, and we have to be respectful of that.”
Mr. French never formally retired from Placer Title Co., although he relinquished the titles of chairman of the board and CEO in 2001, when he was named founder.
Also a philanthropist, Mr. French gave to organizations that served the needy and homeless people. He funded the soup kitchen at St. Vincent de Paul in Roseville, paid for the shower facilities at Loaves & Fishes in Sacramento and supported Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco and Gathering Inn in Roseville in providing food, shelter and other services.
A fan of music, dance and theater, Mr. French and his wife would often go to New York to catch shows on Broadway. In the late 1980s, they took tap dancing lessons, and the couple would entertain employees at the company’s annual birthday party by performing with the Placer Title Dancers, a group of 20 co-workers.
Mr. French was also a voracious reader, devouring several books in a week, and played golf. In his younger years, he enjoyed jogging around Placer County, and took part in the Bay to Breakers foot race in San Francisco.
In addition to his daughter Celia, he is survived by sons Andrew French of Granite Bay and David French of Cool, two other daughters, Mary French of Davis and Nancy Wong of Sacramento; a sister, Lana Foy of Crystal, Minn.; 11 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife in 2010.
Services will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Holy Spirit Parish Church, 3159 Land Park Drive, in Sacramento.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Sacramento Loaves & Fishes or the Sacramento Ballet.