Changes at the top of the corporate ladder have been known to cause more than an occasional flash of drama at Fortune 100 companies, stirring up interest among stakeholders and the media. Certainly home building companies—many of whose founders lit, tended, and stoked their respective corporate cultural fires in the belly for one and sometimes two generations—serve as brilliant examples of classic business school cases in how not to pass the baton of leadership.
But for the elder of the two brothers who founded Toll Brothers 43 years ago, the ascent this past summer of a new CEO occurred as natural a part of a company's life as any other choreographed rite of business passage. Attention to other business stories about Toll Brothers he could fathom, like how the company planned to make money in the distressed real estate game with its new Gibraltar unit even as its home building operations poach market share in its current arenas. To the suggestion that there's an “inside story” to tell of the Toll Brothers CEO succession plan, Bob Toll responds with a shrug.
And a Yiddish expression. “Vus meer plan?” This, too, gets lost in translation. But in other words, Bob Toll wonders, what's the fuss?
“I was a CEO who planned, orchestrated, and primarily chose who the next CEO would be,” says Toll one morning in early September at Toll Brothers' Horsham, Pa., offices. “The biggest companies in the world have CEO succession. At General Electric, they think about it for three or four years; there are two or three or four guys who are in the running. And then the CEO says, ‘I think it ought to be this guy,' and everybody else says, ‘Yeah, that's a good idea.' Then it goes to the board, and unless it's wacky—the board doesn't run the company, the CEO runs the company—the board says, ‘Well, there's nothing wacky about this. We're all for it!' That's how it happens.”
So simple. Luckily, however, for those who think there's a bit more to it, there's a more empathetic viewpoint seated across the desk from Bob Toll, in the chairman's lush, dark wood-paneled third-floor offices. He sees it slightly differently than Bob, he says.
“Most public home builders were family-founded companies,” says Doug Yearley, who's going on 120-some days into his job as the new CEO at Toll. “They [had or] have very strong CEOs. Leonard Miller, Bob [Toll], Larry Mizel, Bill Pulte, with big personalities and great success stories over decades. Analysts and investors were always asking, ‘What's Toll Brothers post-Bob?' and saying, ‘Bob is it.' It may be gossip, but I sensed it was more than that; there was concern. They'd say we never had a plan, and Bob always ignored it. I'm not saying it was legitimate, but it was definitely out there.”
So there's a story here after all, and the 50-year-old guy now in charge agrees. A Toll Brothers that defines itself around essential virtues, decisions, strokes of luck, acts of the Almighty, and blood, sweat, and tears of its founding namesakes now becomes a new Toll Brothers. The new Toll must both sustain itself in the minds of its potential customers as one-and-only and reinvent itself to adapt to the harsh real estate and business realities of a post-Lehman world.
“The moment one day will come when Doug will want to do something he believes will be true to the company's core principles, but different,” says Paul Shapiro, chairman of Q Capital Strategies, and a longtime Toll Brothers director. “Bob will put Doug through a wringer on it. Then he'll shrug and say, ‘Do it.' ”
Toll's may or may not be a story shared in the months and years ahead by some of home building's other heroic characters—Don Horton, or Larry Mizel, or David Weekley—or scores of regional and local home building powers run by their original founding fathers. Over years, maybe decades, through boom and bust real estate cycles, the names and legacies of these men became names home buyers could come to rely on for making the largest purchase they'd ever make, and often the most gratifying. Their names have become synonymous with trust, service, home. At the same time, their names and their companies became interchangeable, welded into one.