Phil Oates is chairman of the board of the Buzz Oates Group. (Photo by Terence Duffy)

Phil Oates Is a Strong Believer in God, Philanthropy, the Sacramento Kings and Candor

At 71, the commercial real estate tycoon continues to earn community-wide kudos — and straight A’s in college

Back Article Jun 20, 2023 By Ed Goldman

This story is part of our June 2023 print issue. To subscribe, click here.

Phil Oates asks to make this lunch interview happen at 11:30 a.m. because he has an early-afternoon appointment. It’s to have his hair dyed purple. This isn’t your average 71-year-old, multimillionaire business tycoon.

It seems that he and Taro Arai, the hard-working and fun-loving owner of Mikuni restaurants and one of Oates’ (several) close pals, have agreed to color their hair to match the Sacramento Kings’ victory light beam in time for the start of the NBA playoffs. “We figured it was the least we could do,” Oates says with a shrug and a grin as he sits down to lunch at the Sutter Club.

In fact, Oates rarely does “the least” he can do. He is chairman of the board of the Buzz Oates Group — a $3 billion commercial real estate investment, management and development firm founded by his late father. Though his financial success and scores of admirers give him every reason not to be, Oates is a humble man. 

Two quick examples of his disarming modesty: “I didn’t make this company successful. My dad did that. With my partners, I’ve just helped keep it successful.”

“I must confess, when we first launched the Phil Oates Celebrity Golf Tournament (in 2021), I was apprehensive. Would enough sponsors participate? Would we make even a dollar for charity? How many top-level celebrities would travel to Northern California?”  

Another success that Oates downplays is the hugely popular fundraiser he started in 2021, which to date has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. For the event, held in October, the 160 players pay around $35,000 per foursome to participate and may designate the nonprofits they wish to support as recipients. 

At lunch, Oates greets several waiters by name. One thanks him for providing her and her family with tickets to a Kings game, “something we could never have afforded to attend. And what wonderful seats!” Since briskly walking into the club’s grill, he’s caused a respectful stir, of which he seems unaware. Throughout the interview, people glance over at him from across the room, seeming to confirm to one another who that man is and beam if they catch his eye. His warmth and ready smile have made the third-generation Sacramentan a much-beloved figure in the capital. 

So has his loyalty to the city and its basketball team, which he and others fought long and hard (and expensively) to keep here when it had other, serious suitors — though none, he says, whose fan base was more raucously faithful. 

“Phil is a man of his word in more ways than one,” says Kevin Nagle, owner of the Sacramento Republic FC soccer team as well as the new owner of a second-tier English soccer team, Huddersfield Town. One of Oates’ ownership partners and a fellow savior of the Sacramento Kings franchise, Nagle says that once Oates “makes a decision, he sticks with it — but he thinks methodically and clearly before making such a decision. He asks the right questions, analyzes issues and then moves forward.”

The privately held Buzz Oates Group has several divisions: real estate, asset management, property management, development and construction. Asked to name his favorites among the dozens of big-ticket projects he’s worked on throughout the past 45 years, Oates says, “Two projects come to mind: Metro Airpark started over 30 years ago. We have significant time and money in the project, including buying all the bonds. Today it’s one of the leading industrial parks in the Western United States.” The other is the Senator Hotel. “This project was out of our norm, but we were able to maintain its historical significance. It is still part of our government scene.”

In a follow-up exchange, Amy Lerseth, executive vice president for business operations of the Buzz Oates Group, chimes in to remind Oates that the company also owned the original ARCO Arena and operated it as an office building for the State of California’s Department of Consumer Affairs before selling it in 2021.

“Great idea,” Oates says. “Let’s use that one too.”

The back-and-forth serves as a glimpse into Oates’ management style. He surrounds himself at work with people whose judgment he trusts; and, away from the office, with people who share his sense of religion, respect and laughter.

 “Phil is a man of his word in more ways than one,” says Kevin Nagle, owner of the Sacramento Republic FC soccer team. Nagle says once Oates “makes a decision, he sticks with it — but he thinks methodically and clearly before making such a decision. He asks the right questions, analyzes issues and then moves forward.”

Oates and his wife, Jana, have three grown children and one grandchild. His daughter, Courtney, works with him at the Buzz Oates Group as an asset analyst. 

“I met Phil 20-plus years ago at the Sacramento Kings’ Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic charity basketball camp,” says restaurateur, philanthropist and fellow purple-head Arai. “He definitely became one of my closest friends, if not the best, as we spent more quality time together. We have been encouraging each other to be more generous and be compassionate about making a difference for others. And more importantly, we share the same faith in God and he has been a good example for me to follow. 

“He is a friend everyone wants to have, and I am planning to keep our friendship as long as I live and then to eternity,” he adds. 

Oates was an athletics coach and teacher before joining his father’s firm in 1978. Father and son remained close up until the end: Buzz died in 2013, living to see his only son defy his advice to “never buy a sports team.” But once he did, earlier that year, “he was very happy I’d done it,” Oates says. “He saw what excitement it generated for the whole region. And money.”

A few months after the deal was done and the Kings decided to continue their reign in Sacramento (rather than relocate to Seattle, its most intensive wooer), Buzz Oates passed away. “I kind of think he was planning to make it to 90 years old and once he did, he figured he was done,” his son says.

Even so, he recalls his dad’s final advice to him when he sat by his bedside. “He took my hand and said — at the age of 90, mind you — ‘Son, remember, life is short.’ I know he wasn’t being ironic. He simply meant, make the most of the time you have.”

Oates says growing up as a local celebrity’s only son (Phil has four younger sisters), “You have to learn to be comfortable about who you are. I finally realized we all have our own unique set of fingerprints.” 

Soccer mogul Nagle says he and Oates “have been involved in a number of community and business ventures. He is extraordinary to work with whether it has been with keeping the Kings in Sacramento, working together on venture capital investments through Moneta Ventures or shared assets we personally own as a partnership.”

Nagle says he respects the fact that when Oates disagrees with a course of action, he doesn’t do so arbitrarily (as his father often did, according to almost everyone who knew him, including his son). “Phil doesn’t always say yes,” Nagle says, “but he’ll explain how he arrived at his decision. He is also beneficial in moving (a) project along through his intelligence, expertise and persuasiveness. To top it off, as a leader he is a kind soul.”

Like his father, Oates is much-admired for his unshakable beliefs in God and philanthropy. While he’s contributed time and money to some 300-plus charities, he confines most of his donations these days to Capital Christian Church, as his father did, and ACED (Accelerating Character Education Development), a national initiative that emphasizes the importance of students learning moral behavior along with academic lessons. 

“In the early days, I believed in giving a little something to a lot of different charities,” he says. “Then I realized it was better to give something more substantial to just a few, because it really helped them.” Nonprofits, he believes, “shouldn’t limit their outreach or depend on single benefactors.”  

Not even those with big hearts, open wallets and, sometimes, purple hair.  

Some Phil-osophies on mentoring, candor and the high price of parking

Phil Oates has mentored dozens of professional athletes and young businesspeople. His advice: “If you’re going to mentor people, you need to be willing to give them time and transparency. And that includes being honest about your own mistakes.”

As a CEO, “You have to be surrounded by people you trust,” he says. “For example, I make sure to stay out of my partners’ way because they’re brilliant at what they do. If I didn’t think that, we wouldn’t be partners.”

He’s been working on an MBA at Colorado State, which has required him to take three eight-week courses. “They mainly consist of writing, and I love to write,” he says. Asked why a businessman reported to be worth upwards of $400 million felt the need to go back to school, he tilts his head slightly to one side and says, “Self-esteem. I like reminding myself that I didn’t just inherit my dad’s success.” It should be noted he’s been earning A’s in all of his classes.

Oates played basketball when he attended Bethany Bible College in Santa Cruz. “I’m not very tall,” he says matter-of-factly, then smiles. “It probably helped to be underestimated on the court.”

On having moved his company’s offices to the tony 555 Capitol Mall about seven years ago: “My dad was pretty thrifty,” he says, “which is probably an understatement. I think if he hadn’t passed away in 2013 and found out what the company’s paying just to have our employees park at the office,” he pauses and grins, “then that might’ve killed him.”

–Ed Goldman

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