Photo: Jamie Windon We asked M.D.C. Holdings chairman and CEO Larry Mizel to chair Big Builder '08 for three reasons. Foremost, he is real. He wears his honesty and heart on his sleeve, and homespun wit and wisdom pour out of him like a mellow bourbon over a single cube of ice. Second, he's a veteran of downturns of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, flirted with going flat broke, and lived to tell the tale. Third, his company's asset-light, customer-centric strategy is second to perhaps just one other home building organization navigating the housing crisis. His genuine, experienced, and disciplined voice would be the kind BIG BUILDER's audience needed to hear from at such a trying moment.

Mizel delivered in a big way. He spoke to the conference theme, “Build a Better Tomorrow,” with remarks about both the evolving need for buyer choices and the need for home builders to improve their operations by gaining knowledge, responding flexibly, and ultimately adapting to new realities that reform business opportunity.

We caught up with Larry for dinner on Nov. 2, and had a conversation that ranged from a proper Coloradan's preparation of a prime beef barbecue to cracking the code of selling new homes against foreclosures.

We're trying to capture the spirit of the quotes rather than guaranteeing their absolute verbatim fidelity. He was as interested in his dinner companions and their respective lives and cares as we were to know about him. Conversation fell into a few buckets: general business and economic issues, home building and M.D.C. issues, and personal enthusiasms.

One of the traits that makes Mizel different from many CEO counterparts is the way he takes in information. He reads. He's a big fan of Ivy Zelman's analysis of home builders and the industry's challenges, and, for daily business news, he prefers the U.K.'s Financial Times to any stateside business broadsheets. “They write the facts of the story, they cut to the chase, and they don't add a lot of that extra interpretive nonsense they put in The Wall Street Journal. I learn a lot from that newspaper. You should read it.”

On the outlook for home builders and the housing economy, he says, “It's going to get worse before it gets better. But we're going to recover sooner. Home building, and America as a whole, took our medicine sooner, and we're going to see home building and the U.S. economy lead the way out of the recession. Housing always leads the way, and it will again. We just have to make it to the other side.”

“We're working with and supportive of the proposal to stimulate home buying with a stimulative tax credit and a mortgage rate buy down that would temporarily go into effect the way it did in the mid-1970s,” Mizel adds. “We're working with a wide number of organizations and their respective lobbyists to try to get on the Congressional agenda during a lame-duck session. We think that if we can get the focus on the fact that housing is the engine of the economy, it will be the most effective way to stabilize the broader economy and get us back on track.”

With regard to M.D.C. operations, Mizel loses sleep these days mostly over how to sell to customers still in the marketplace against the wildfire of foreclosures cropping up in most of the submarkets the company markets in. “It's our No. 1 issue right now, and we're working on a major program to counter the appeal of foreclosures,” he says. “So many of our prospective buyers believe that if they don't buy a foreclosure, they're paying way too much, and we've got to find a way to deal with that.”

Apart from his day job, Mizel works tirelessly on a number of charities and is chairman of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a globally known human rights organization. For work and funds he provided to New York City firefighters just after 9/11, the Ancient Order of Hibernians dubbed Mizel an honorary Irishman, a distinction he cherishes to this day.