Marcos Bretón

Dorene Dominguez: Low profile but big plans for Sacramento

Dorene Dominguez, chairman of Vanir Group of Companies Inc., hopes to move her company’s headquarters from Natomas to a 26-story downtown skyscraper she hopes to build.
Dorene Dominguez, chairman of Vanir Group of Companies Inc., hopes to move her company’s headquarters from Natomas to a 26-story downtown skyscraper she hopes to build. rbenton@sacbee.com

Have you ever heard of Dorene Dominguez?

Likely not, but the mayor of Sacramento knows her as a key business leader – and a potentially big investor who wants to build a 26-story skyscraper across the street from where the new downtown Kings arena is being constructed. The Sacramento Kings know Dorene Dominguez as an owner with a minority stake in the franchise. The California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce knows Dorene Dominguez as one of the most notable Latina CEOs on the West Coast. The state of California knows her as the owner of a construction firm that has built prisons all over the state, including Pelican Bay State Prison, where some of California’s worst felons are incarcerated.

It seems incongruous that such a notorious place was produced by a family business whose name is plucked from Norse mythology and signifies prosperity, wealth and goodness.

“My dad only had a community college education, but he was very curious,” said Dominguez, 52. Her father, H. Frank Dominguez, founder of the Vanir Group of Companies (pronounced Van-er), died of a heart attack in 2004. “He wanted a (company) name that meant something about what he was going to do.”

Symbols of prosperity, wealth and goodness fill the tasteful office occupied by the exceedingly low-key Dominguez. The walls hold striking Mexican American art on loan from the University of Notre Dame, where Dominguez graduated. Her love of art and success at business moved President George W. Bush to nominate her to a commission studying the creation of a National Museum of American Latinos in Washington, D.C.

The office also features photos of her younger sister Diane – who has Down syndrome – working with Pride Industries, which employs people with disabilities. It holds framed images of every prison, school, hospital, government building and office tower built by this company with more than 300 employees.

It’s easy to miss the business, tucked away in an office park just off Interstate 5 and across the freeway from Sleep Train Arena. From there, Dominguez oversees an operation with offices across America and two in the Middle East, where Vanir is working on construction projects in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The company has been headquartered in Sacramento for 20 years.

In early December, the firm announced plans for a 26-story building – one of the tallest in Sacramento – on the site of an abandoned Bank of the West branch at 601 J St. While trying to land the story that December night, some of us tried hard to reach Dominguez – to no avail. She said she would be happy to talk, but it would have to wait until after the holidays. Why so low key?

“Privacy,” she said with a laugh. It’s largely worked until now, but you don’t seek to construct one of the tallest buildings in Sacramento without attracting attention. The Vanir Tower is conceived as a 372,000-square-foot behemoth with deep blue glass that would loom over the new entertainment and sports complex across the street.

It would be a bold stroke for a height-challenged skyline, but it’s far from certain. Before the last economic slowdown, there were other plans for skyscrapers that would change the character of downtown Sacramento. Most went bust.

Dominguez said she is talking to lenders and has potential tenants but nothing signed. There isn’t yet a big market for the skyscraper of Dominguez’s dreams, a monument to her late father. Commercial real estate rents would have to rise about 30 percent to make an ambitious skyscraper pencil out. Will that happen in a year? Two years?

Vanir and other property owners around the arena construction site are banking on the sports palace, set to open in 2016, to boost the surrounding property value enough to make such projects work financially. Dominguez has targeted an opening date of 2018 for her tower. Vanir would move its headquarters from Natomas to downtown Sacramento, in the hub of a new urban core, along with attracting name tenants.

That is the dream.

“My vision is that we’re no longer a mom-and-pop but a national and international business,” Dominguez said.

Johnson recruited Dominguez to join the Kings ownership group and now sees her plans for downtown as a symbol of growth in the business community. “Investing in our core says it all,” Johnson said, “Dorene is civic-minded. She knows all the political players. She is a force to be reckoned with.”

That force was inherited from a father who was the son of Mexican immigrants and put himself through school by joining the Army as a medic. While stationed in Germany, he met Gisela – who fled communist East Berlin, fell in love and left her family behind to live with her new husband’s Mexican kin near San Bernardino.

The father leveraged apartment complexes and soon was building offices and trading on his engaging personality to land contracts to build prisons and schools. The daughter wants to build more schools than prisons. Through a foundation established after her father’s death, Vanir supports inner-city schools. At Bret Harte Elementary in Sacramento, Vanir funds tutoring after school and on Saturdays. The company provides school uniforms for kids who can’t afford them at Noralto Elementary in Sacramento. It funds after-school engineering programs at St. Philomene’s. The list goes on in several other communities.

It’s a picture of commitment that lends credence to the dream of a downtown tower – a family business ascending after a 50-year history of building and good works without seeking publicity or acclaim.

That says you’re for real. That says people will know your name in the future.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

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