When Seal Beach Real Estate Developer Jim Watson started college, he thought his path in life was to go into medicine and become a medical doctor. He started classes in that major, but as soon as they got into dissection of frogs, he knew that it wasn’t for him.
But by the time Watson had entered college, he’d had a long road of working and learning about life, mostly following in his mother’s career. Watson’s father died when he was just six year’s old, so his mother went to work to support the family. She worked in real estate, and even though he was young, Watson observed how some of it worked and when the frogs turned his stomach, Watson turned to real estate himself.
That road would eventually lead to his founding J.R. Watson and Associates Development Corporation in 1972. Soon after he would re-locate the business to its current location on Ocean and Main in Seal Beach. In January, the company celebrated its 50th year in business. So far, they have only had a small company celebration, but for Watson, looking back at the challenges overcome and successes achieved by the company was comforting.
“It was a gratifying experience,” Watson said recently.
Watson had grown up fast after his father died. He was a latch-key kid while his mother worked, and he began to fall behind in school. It was discovered that his reading had fallen below grade level and it was hurting his grades. He was put into a reading class and it would turn out to be what he called, “the single most important class in his life.”
Not only did the class help him turn around his grades, it taught him the importance of being able to read and comprehend material. It became a kind of motto for his life and what he considered one of his most important skills.
“It was the foundation of me being successful,” Watson said.
And it would become a cornerstone of his philanthropic efforts later in his life. One of the biggest contributions in that field would be the opening of the Watson and Associates Literacy Center on the campus of Cal State University, San Bernardino in 2004. Jim’s wife Judy also struggled with dyslexia, a reading disability that is characterized by difficulties with word recognition, comprehension and letter decoding.
Judy would overcome her challenges to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and social behavior from UC Irvine. She developed a passion for art as a teenager and it would later become part of the philanthropic focus for the Watsons.
When Jim met Judy, he found not only a partner in business, but in giving back as well. The two have funded, fundraised and campaigned for several projects over the past decades. They have championed for programs in art and education for all grade levels, as well as for support for prisoners in the prison system.
“She is the single best deal I’ve ever made in my life,” Jim said.
As a couple, the Watsons were co-chairs for the Tools for Education Committee, which raised more than $3 million for “tools needed” at the New College of Education. They also funded and started the Judy Rodriguez Public Art Program in 2010, which provides for the public placement of art pieces by students and professors throughout the city of San Bernardino.
For their efforts both have received honorary doctorates in Humane Letters from CSUSB, Jim in 2010 and Judy in 2014. Jim and his family moved from Oklahoma to Compton before his father died. He would later go off to college at San Jose State, where he earned a bachelor’s in Real Estate Finance. He worked in Real Estate appraisals for banks and at age 27 was made Chief Real Estate Appraiser and Director of Real Estate for Downey Savings and Loan.
Soon after he was asked if he wanted to work on a real estate development project. Watson said he admitted he didn’t know much about development but assured his bosses that if they told him what he needed to do, that he’d get it done. And, so it began. Watson would soon venture out on his own. His first solo project was a small house and two vacant lots he purchased to develop.
Since it was just him, he was doing much of the work himself. He started in underprivileged neighborhoods, because that’s where the properties were affordable. But as he improved the properties, he noticed that neighboring homes and building owners would begin to make improvements on theirs.
That set one of his goals to seek out projects that will enhance a neighborhood. Over the years, he learned from those he worked with and even those who worked for him, different things about development. He also developed one of his own leadership theories, in that it was sometimes better to let others take control of their responsibilities.
“I like giving suggestions,” Watson said.
Watson moved to Seal Beach in 1973, shortly after starting the business, which was then located in Orange. But he soon moved it to a small building in Sunset Beach and when the corner lot at Main Street and Ocean Avenue became available in 1976, he jumped at the opportunity.
Watson & Associates moved into their Seal Beach offices in May of 1977. Locally, Watson & Associates have homes on the Gold Coast and First Street in Seal Beach. They have also developed the Ocean and Main office and retail center, as well as the Bay City Center, which was completed in 1979. While those projects are part of Watson’s home, they are small compared to some of the company’s larger projects.
In total, Watson said the company has developed more than 1 million square feet of neighborhoods, downtown areas and specialty shopping centers. They have completed 35 shopping centers and commercial properties and more than 3,000 residences. They have also developed two master plan developments, one of them a 315-acre project in Post Falls, Idaho.
The giving back also continues in Seal Beach. Over the years, Jim has been part of the Rebuild the Seal Beach Pier organization, as well as the Seal Beach Police Officer’s Association and was the founding President of the Trees for Seal Beach organization in 1990. He remained a board member until 2003, during which, the organization planted more than 5,000 trees and replaced tons of concrete with grass.
Watson has also served the Seal Beach Chamber of Commerce since 1984. He noted that organization, as one that has been a big contributor to the community, along with the Seal Beach Lions Club.
Watson & Associates has survived four major economic downturns since its inception. One of the keys, Watson said, was that they have always been transparent with banks, making the banks more open to working with them, when necessary. The other key, he said, is accounting. He said a business always needs to know where it is financially, in order to avoid critical mistakes. In terms of personal satisfaction, Watson said that contributing to one’s community has always been a key to personal happiness and growth. It doesn’t have to be providing a grant to fund a literacy center or raising money for a cause. For example, he said just volunteering for a beach cleanup can bring personal satisfaction beyond the time spent on the venture. He used the beach cleanup example because he has also been impressed by the effort of the Save Our Beach organization over the years
“It really enriches one’s life to be able to give back on any level,” Watson said.