Preserving History, Protecting Employees

Elise Luckham describes First American Financial Corporation’s stake in history with its Home Office in California, and a worldwide relief effort to rebuild an Oklahoma office and help families affected by a devastating tornado

Since 2007, Elise Luckham has served as vice president and director of corporate real estate for First American Financial Corporation, developing strategies to optimize the company’s vast real estate assets. For such a position at a company comprised of more than 700 domestic office locations and an additional 55 international office locations, Luckham’s is a dynamic role.

The largest of these locations is First American’s 500,000-square-foot “Home Office” in Santa Ana, California. The campus, which opened in 1999 and currently consists of seven buildings, features several unique, visually striking rotundas and an architectural theme modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, reflecting the company’s rich history.

Architecture at the First American Home Office echoes Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Estate.
Architecture at the First American Home Office echoes Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Estate.

First American traces its roots to 1889, when Orange County split off from Los Angeles County. Two firms opened to handle title matters in the brand-new county. Five years later, C.E. Parker, a local businessman, succeeded in merging the two competitors into a single entity—Orange County Title Company, the immediate predecessor to today’s First American Title Insurance Company, the largest subsidiary of First American Financial Corporation.

Now, 126 years later, Orange County’s evolution into an influential economic powerhouse mirrors First American’s growth into an international enterprise and leading provider of title insurance, settlement services, and risk solutions for real estate transactions.

Prior to the opening of the current Home Office campus in 1999, First American’s headquarters was located in downtown Santa Ana. The historic first building was left alone until two years ago, when Luckham and her team decided to migrate certain teams over as the company embarked on a process to “restack” or streamline its office space, bringing a new focus to the notable structure.

The downtown Santa Ana building remains a functioning part of First American’s real estate portfolio and still features the nearly untouched office of Donald P. Kennedy, the iconic former CEO of First American. Under three decades of Kennedy’s leadership, the company grew from an Orange County-focused title insurance company into a publicly held industry leader with offices across the United States.   

“His office was really a time capsule,” Luckham says. So, she and her team set out to memorialize Kennedy’s influence at the Home Office campus. Inspired by the lifelike office of Disney founder Walt Disney at Disney World, Luckham and her team recreated Kennedy’s office at First American’s current Home Office campus. It features memorabilia from Kennedy’s tenure at the helm of First American and includes a visual timeline that highlights significant company milestones.

First American also plays a special role in commemorating the history of the county in which it is based. It houses one of the largest collections of historical photos of Orange County, which includes approximately 12,500 photos. The Home Office restack was also bolstered by the addition of several more historical artifacts.

First American recreated former CEO Donald P. Kennedy’s office in its Santa Ana Home Office building.
First American recreated former CEO Donald P. Kennedy’s office in its Santa Ana Home Office building.

“It was a perfect time to celebrate the company’s history and create areas to showcase it while we were restacking the buildings,” Luckham says.

Since arriving at First American, Luckham has mastered the art of integration. She became the first real estate executive to centralize the department for First American. Though companies often consider remodeling, Luckham feels the First American Home Office campus is significant because of its connection to the company’s fabled history.

Moore, Oklahoma Rebuild

On May 20, 2013, the city of Moore, Oklahoma, was struck by a devastating EF-5 tornado. The tornado struck in the middle of the workday, and First American Title Insurance Company’s Moore office was directly in its path. A total of 20 First American employees, as well as 15 other people and three dogs took shelter in the building’s basement. Thankfully, none of the people in the basement were injured. However, many people suffered significant property losses and damage to vehicles and other possessions. First American Title’s office was severely damaged to the point that it had to be rebuilt.

Within three days, First American CEO Dennis Gilmore launched the First American Oklahoma Employees’ Relief Fund. First American contributed $50,000 to the fund and committed to matching dollar-for-dollar employee donations to the fund.

Luckham was very proud to see employees from around the world rally around the Moore office. Hundreds of employees contributed to the relief fund, and a total of $122,000 was raised to replace automobiles, personal items, and help repair the damaged homes of the First American Title employees and their families. In fact, there was so much money raised that a balance remained afterward.

First American Title also committed to rebuilding its office in Moore and embarked on a two-year process to build and open a brand new office building. The recently opened building includes a statue of an eagle soaring in flight, which was funded by the leftover balance from the relief fund. The eagle statue, reminiscent of First American’s logo, was dubbed “321”—a reference to the time when the tornado struck—by the staff.