Over the course of his 84 years, Dale Dykema has lived the kind of life that Ken Burns could make a 10-part documentary about.
It’s the kind of life that might make Forrest Gump jealous.
Sure, Forrest may have shaken hands with John F. Kennedy (with the help of some computer-generated wizardry), but Dale Dykema has a photo album that’s littered with some of the biggest names in politics and sports in the last 40 years.
They show Dykema shaking hands with presidents and presidential candidates, and plenty of senators, generals and ambassadors. There’s even one of Dykema smiling and laughing with the Terminator himself, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This is what happens when you’ve been successful in a variety of businesses for more than 50 years; Dykema has served as the CEO and chairman of the board of TD Service Financial Corp. since 1964.
Leading his own company for five decades wasn’t what Dykema planned to do when he was in college or business school, but life has a funny way of changing your plans for you.
After spending his formative years in Michigan, Dykema graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and eventually earned a Masters in Business from the University of Michigan.
His time at Calvin College was interrupted by a four-year stint in the Air Force during the height of the Korean War. His training included studying Russian for a year, then spending time in Germany, where he and his unit spent their days doing radio intercept, listening to the Russian Air Force.
“At the time, we were deep into the Cold War and very concerned about the Russians,” Dykema said. “We had 24-hour surveillance — we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss anything and that we got our translations correct.”
Dykema’s unit passed the information to the National Security Agency, among other government entities.
“We weren’t on the front lines with a gun, but our operation was very important to our country. There was a great deal of patriotism, that you were doing something for your country.”
While he was in Air Force, his parents moved from Michigan to California with his younger brother and sister. He made the decision during one of those trips that he was going to move to California as soon as he was done with school.
“When I graduated from college and got my MBA, my goal at the time was to go to work for a large corporate entity in the human resources area and work my way into labor relations and contract negotiations,” Dykema said.
But after moving out to California, he couldn’t find a job in the field he wanted. Instead, he took what he thought would be a temporary job at a title insurance company.
“I fell into a very good opportunity,” he said. That temporary opportunity would shape the rest of his life.
But before he would eventually start the company that would become his life’s work, he had a run-in with one of the most notorious names in U.S. history.
In the late 1960s, Dykema was named receiver for an apartment house located in Los Angeles. While the property went through foreclosure proceedings, it was Dykema’s job to collect the rent.
During that time, the apartment house’s property manager rented one of the units to a strange man with a strange request.
Eric Galt refused the property manager, instead insisting that he pay Dykema directly.
Each month, Dykema would go to Galt’s door and ring the doorbell. He’d be greeted by a gruff voice pointedly asking, “Who’s there?”
Dykema would answer and then wait. “I could always hear him rustling around in there,” Dykema said. “But after about five minutes, he’d come to the door and pay me in cash. Always in cash for a month’s rent. It was kind of a strange thing, but I thought ‘Well, he’s paying his rent and he’s not bothering anybody, so I’ll go on with my business.’”
This went on for about fourth months, until Dykema received a letter from Galt. In the letter were the keys to the unit and a note saying that he had to leave quickly.
“So I took the keys and gave them to the manager and took the note and put it into the receivership file,” Dykema said. “And then I didn’t think anything else about it for probably about two to three weeks.”
But one night, Dykema got a call at home. His wife answered the phone and handed it to him. Her hand was over the mouthpiece when she told Dale that the man calling was from the FBI.
The FBI agent asked Dykema if he remembered Galt. He said yes, which prompted more questions from the agent.
“In the course of that conversation, he found out that I had that letter in my office,” Dykema said. “And he said, ‘Can we get that letter?’ I said that I’ll be in the office tomorrow morning. Can you meet me there then? He said, ‘No, we need it tonight.’”
Dykema’s wife was supposed to be using their car that evening so he told the agent that he had no way of getting to the office. “We’ll send some agents to your house to pick you up,” the agent said.
The agents picked up Dykema and drove him to his office. They picked up the letter and then went to the FBI’s field office in Los Angeles, where a courier was waiting to take the letter to Washington, D.C.
“They wouldn’t tell me what any of it was about,” Dykema said. “So, on the way back home, I ask the agents, ‘Can you give me some clue as to what’s going on here?’”
The agents said they couldn’t, but told him he could read about it in the next day’s newspaper. When Dykema checked the newspaper the following morning he read that his former tenant had been named as the assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Eric Galt’s real name? James Earl Ray.
Ray had been on the run after escaping from prison prior to assassinating King in Memphis in 1968. And one of his stops before he made his way to Memphis was Dale Dykema’s apartment house in Los Angeles.
“I saw him once a month for maybe four months,” Dykema said. “I look back on it now and I can imagine him standing at the door with a gun in his hand before he went to get the rent money. It really is a crazy story.”
After his run-in with a notorious criminal, and learning the ins and outs of the title insurance industry, Dykema decided to start a company that did foreclosure and reconveyance work. At the time, he was living “paycheck-to-paycheck, with a wife and three kids and a mortgage.”
He admits that it wasn’t practical for him to step out on his own but the desire to start his own business was bubbling on the back burner of his brain.
“I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur when I was in college,” he said. “I never thought of going into business myself, although I can still remember my mother, when I was growing up, talking to my dad about ‘we oughta start a family business.’ That thought may have stuck with me a little bit.”
He started TD Service with just a secretary. “The first year and a half was a bit of a struggle with long hours and hard work and some doubt as to the success,” he said. “But fortunately after about a year and a half, things started to take off. I think a lot of potential customers waited around to see if were going to be successful and stick around before they decided to use us.”
Success soon followed. But Dale Dykema isn’t one to rest on his laurels.
“I realized early on that I like to start new things,” he said. “So subsequent to starting that first company, I’ve started probably 25 or so additional companies. Some of which have gone belly up. Some of which have been sold off and several of which we still have today.”
Several of those companies have been logical offshoots of TD Service, but others have been a bit further afield.
There was the hydroponic tomato-growing company in California that Dykema calls one of the “classic failures.” One of his big successes is a company that sells flameless candles.
About four and a half years ago, an acquaintance of Dykema’s approached him with the opportunity to license a patent from the Disney Corp. that they had for flameless candles. Disney’s Imagineering department developed the technology for the Haunted House and Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
“Disney does not take their patents and then develop commercial business for them, but my friend had established a relationship with a guy at Disney and he was able to convince the guy to do an experiment and license one of these technologies to see if it would be a good source of revenue,” Dykema said.
“I looked at it and said, ‘Wow, this looks great,’” he said. “The technology produces a product where if you stand eight feet away or longer, you’d think it’s a real candle with a real flame.
“I invested in it. And then I invested more in it. And I invested more in it.”
But success came eventually. “It’s been very, very successful,” Dykema said. His company now sells the product on QVC, in the Frontgate catalog, Brookstone, Bed Bath & Beyond and Pottery Barn.
The flameless candle company takes up much of his time these days, but Dykema has also overseen the rapid transition of his primary business, TD Service.
“I think if you look at the history of our company on a graph, it’s had its ups and downs, since foreclosures are a major source of revenue and foreclosures are a volatile thing,” he said. “2009 was the biggest revenue and biggest volume year we’ve ever had in terms of the number of foreclosures that we process.”
Since then, Dykema said the volume of foreclosures his company has processed has dropped 75%. And that volume will continue to drop.
“We were aware that this was going to happen about four years ago, so we started talking about how we were going to replace the revenue we were going to lose from the foreclosure servicing side so that we can continue to stay in business,” he said.
That led Dykema to shift TD Service’s focus to becoming a provider of IT services for the mortgage industry.
“My vision is that three to four years from now, 80% of our revenue would be coming from the IT business. So that’s a big change in a relatively short period of time. It was a challenge, but I’ve faced those challenges before when we started other new companies.”
Outside of his various business interests, Dykema has been deeply involved in politics in California for many years, even embarking on two different runs for political office in Orange County. The first was for a seat on the Long Beach City Council. Of the 13 people who ran, Dykema came in fourth.
“During that effort, I came into contact with the leadership of the Republican Party and they encouraged me to look at running for the assembly,” Dykema said. He did, but that run was unsuccessful as well.
“After that second election, I decided that I don’t like being defeated,” he said. “But I still love politics, so I thought I’ll help other people get elected.”
In the years since that decision, Dykema has been “very involved” in politics in Orange County.
“Fortunately, my businesses have put me in a position where I can make a fair amount of political contributions a year,” he said. “I’m pretty generous when it comes to that. I understand how hard it is raise money, having gone through a couple of my own campaigns. So I have empathy with the people running for office.”
Through those efforts, Dykema has been involved in George W. Bush and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s run for governor of California.
Dykema’s success in his various ventures also allowed him to endow a chair at the University of Michigan and the University of California Medical School.
It also led him to a fateful breakfast meeting with Tiger Woods and his father Earl. Woods was looking to build a learning center in California and invited local business leaders to a breakfast to talk about his plans. Dykema ended up on the board of the learning center, and eventually, served on the board of the Tiger Woods Foundation, a position that he still holds today.
Woods lends far more than his name to the foundation, Dykema said. “We get to see Tiger about half a dozen times a year,” he said. “He comes to about half of the board meetings. And we’re helping about 10,000 kids a year through the Tiger Woods Learning Center.”
Golf has been a big part of Dykema’s life for a long time. He travels to Hawaii a couple times a year, and the trips have a “heavy golf concentration.”
And by heavy, Dykema means two and sometimes three rounds per day when he’s in Hawaii. He’s no slouch on the course either.
“I shot my age when I was 82 and 83,” he said. “I’m 84 now. I haven’t done it yet since April when I turned 84, but I plan to.”
The pages of Dale Dykema’s anthology are filled with amazing people and memorable pictures. But the book isn’t full yet. There are still some blank pages that he’s yet to fill. There are still memories to make.
What his next chapter holds is anyone’s guess, but it’s a pretty safe bet that it’ll make a great story.