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Built to Last

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Joe Cervantes has quite literally built his career from the ground up: Right after graduation from Cal State Los Angeles in 1977, Cervantes was assistant to the superintendent building a Sambo’s restaurant. He went on to build three more Sambo’s in California, then more restaurants, a senior center and medical facilities.

“I got excited about making a person’s vision his or her reality from a piece of dirt in what was once a parking lot,” says Cervantes, about a career he loves that started nearly 40 years ago. “Turning it into a living, almost breathing, thriving environment where families will enjoy themselves is quite satisfying.”

In 1986, he joined R.D. Olson Construction, a nationwide general contracting and construction management firm specializing in hospitality projects. “At the time, we were a very small company doing about $2 million in gross revenue,” says Cervantes, now a partner and senior executive vice president of operations at R.D. Olson. “Today, we are over $230 million in gross revenue and still expanding.”

The current revenue within his own business unit is $80 million. “I just love it and can’t wait for the next business opportunity and owner relationship,” he says. “My mindset has always been to keep learning from my challenges, keep educating myself through failure, to never give up and enjoy what I’m most passionate about: my business.”

From the state of commercial building during the economic recovery to the excitement of waterslides, Cervantes shares his observations on the industry with Mihaylo Magazine:

In the last decade, what did R.D. Olson do to maintain business through the economic ups and downs?

During the past 10 years, our company focused specifically on building better relationships with our subcontractors and suppliers. We understood that at some point our industry and economy would emerge from this recession, and once that occurred, our industry would experience shortages in labor forces and supply chain. We developed much stronger relationships with these subcontractors and suppliers while everybody else remained idle.

In the same way, we continued to be busy as we took on the risk of developing projects, particularly hotels, during this time while many other developers stood on the sidelines waiting for the economy to improve. Fortunately, we stayed busy, which gave us a tremendous advantage as our people were active and working. They stayed current with the industry’s pricing structure and could apply that knowledge toward budgeting for new projects as the economy emerged from the recession. It also meant that our employees remained with us and had a strong sense of loyalty.

Where is the building industry now?

Today our industry is out of control. I was surprised at how quickly events changed once people became more confident in the economy. It happened almost overnight as everyone suddenly wanted to get back into the development game and start building again. In our case, hotels, high-density apartments and retail projects were on the board once more. Without the strong relationships that we previously created with our subcontractors, suppliers and vendors, we would be in serious trouble getting our projects completed on schedule.

What makes a good partnership between your company and a client?

My guiding principles with our clients have been exceeding their expectations and always delivering more than what’s required from within our industry. Gaining the trust and confidence of our clients is critical, and our reputation for integrity has been an important part of that over the years.

What are you looking for when hiring new employees?

We are looking for self-confidence. We hire people who are highly self-motivated, organized and entrepreneurial. We want them to expect to take over their supervisor’s job and move up through the company. We understand our employees will learn by their mistakes and, in doing so, build a platform of growing, experiencing and learning thereby enhancing both the company and their own expertise.

What recent project has been particularly interesting you?

I especially enjoyed our recently completed Marriott Courtyard Water Park Hotel in Anaheim. The owner built the adjacent Howard Johnson’s Hotel with his father more than 50 years ago across from Disneyland Resort. Jim Edmondson completed his father’s vision by developing this new hotel and fulfilled his own vision by including 22,000-square-foot water park. It’s almost magical to watch all sorts of kids playing in that water park. I almost wish I was that kid again myself to experience what we built.


At the 2014 CSUF Vision & Visionaries award celebration, Joe Cervantes was conferred an honorary alumnus of the university. He has been an active member of the Mihaylo College Executive Council and its board of directors since 2007 and became president in 2013. He shares his expertise and career advice with students, serving as both a mentor and a Professor for a Day participant. His daughter and son, Arianna ’11 and Nicholas ’14, both earned communications degrees at CSUF, which spawned Cervantes’ interest in the university.

“The dedication and professionalism is quite astounding, and I’m so proud that two of my children had the privilege to learn and be taught at the university,” he says. “Once I got involved, I was hooked by all that I saw that was so good, and I didn’t hesitate to help and support the school.”

Cervantes provides student scholarships, financially supports Business Honors Scholars and serves on the Mihaylo College Golf Classic committee. The Cervantes family also continues to financially support Titan Athletics through personal and corporate giving programs. “I am always impressed by the people I meet out in the community who have graduated from Cal State Fullerton,” he said. “It’s just amazing how many impressive leaders and tremendously gifted individuals attended the university.”