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Who’s Who in Real Estate: Steve Ruffner – Executive All Fired Up

Business Journal homes in on a dozen residential developers who, surprise, are building in the L.A. market.

Steve Ruffner remembers that day in early 2008 all too well.

On the morning of March 24, a welder’s torch sparked a blaze that consumed an entire wing of the partially completed Ascent at Warner Center, a KB Home condodevelopment in Woodland Hills.

Ruffner, who oversaw the project, heard the bad news through a phone call from an employee watching the fire on a security camera.

“It was not a great day,” he said.

Nobody was hurt in the fire, but it set construction back a year and a half. But Ruffner, 49, isn’t one to dwell on the past, particularly as construction on the project just wrapped up.

For the executive, completing the 191-unit development is more than the close of a difficult chapter in his tenure as head of the local operations for the L.A. homebuilder; it also is symbolic of the local housing industry’s resiliency.

Despite the soft market, Ruffner is overseeing five subdivisions and two condo projects in the county. “We have a lot coming,” he said.

While some kids want to be astronauts, Ruffner had a soft spot for real estate early on. His mother had once owned a house painting company, while a homebuilding executive he met as a young man that pushed him into the industry.

He sold real estae while at the University of Arizona, landing a spot in KB Home’s training program for college students. Just after graduation, he started working for the homebuilder full time, handling positions ranging from construction to customer service to sales.

“I worked my way through a whole bunch of different jobs,” he said.

In the late 1990s, he moved from Arizona to Southern California, working in San Diego and Orange counties before taking over the whole Southern California division. Ruffner credits Jeffrey Mezger, now the company’s chief executive, for his rise.

“Jeff really was the first to notice me at the division level and push me to grow into a leader of the division,” he said.

To get a feel for the needs of the local market, he travels frequently throughout the region.

“I don’t really believe you can understand the business from the office,” said Ruffner, who nevertheless tries not to spend too much time away from his wife and two daughters.

The housing bust has been rough for KB Home. Since the beginning of 2007, the company has lost more than $2 billion. But low interest rates and prices have helped buyers, while KB has cut the size of its houses.

Even the trendy Ascent condos, originally slated to start at $300,000, can now be had for as low as $230,000. “Somebody who earns $30,000 a year could live here,” he said.

Steve Ruffner, 49

President

KB Home, Southern California division

With a lifelong passion for homebuilding, Ruffner joined KB Home just after graduating from the University of Arizona in 1984. The Temecula resident worked a variety of jobs within the company before assuming a role overseeing all local operations. He has seven home and condominium developments under way in the county.

If I Weren’t a Developer I’d Be: I have a passion for competitive swimming, so I would have likely been a swim coach.

Most Challenging Development: KB Home’s Southern California urban infill developments have been very challenging but also rewarding.

Best Career Moment: When I landed a job in my chosen field of homebuilding shortly after graduating from the University of Arizona.

My Colleagues Don’t Know: I collect wristwatches. I love all sports watches.

Favorite Project I Didn’t Develop: The Getty is one of the most incredible projects in Southern California.

Best Thing About Developing in L.A. County: There are so many homebuilding opportunities from urban to rural.

Worst: There are so many municipalities within the county that have different guidelines for building homes.

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