William J. Pulte became a carpenter and a mason at 16 to put gas in his clunker car. He became a builder at 18 because of a Cadillac and a glass of iced tea.
The Pulte Homes founder, 77, remembers looking down from his work on a hot roof one day in 1950 as his boss drove up in a brand-new Cadillac. On the dashboard was a sweating glass of iced tea.
“I thought, ‘I'm smarter than that guy. I'm going to be a builder,'” recalls Pulte.
So, just out of high school, he headed down to City Hall in Detroit and asked for a permit to build a house. The five-room bungalow with a fireplace he built with the help of friends and family sold for $10,000 and netted Pulte a story in the local newspaper.
Nearly 60 years and 500,000-plus homes later, Pulte still drives a Cadillac. But, as of the end of March, he's retired from the helm of the company that bears his name and carries his legacy as a founder of the public home building industry.
“Bill was one of the people, along with myself and others, who created a new industry out of an old industry,” recalls Eli Broad, who has the distinction of being the second builder to take a company public, founding Kaufman & Broad, later KB Home, a few years before Pulte went public in 1969 (Levitt & Sons was first).
“Without a question, Bill was one of the giants in the industry,” says Broad.
Both Pulte's and Broad's companies had their roots in Detroit, and they were among the first to become multi-market builders, forming what has become the merchant builder model, tapping into Wall Street money that gave them a distinct advantage over private builders.
Yet Pulte is the first to say that he's a builder first and foremost.
“I was not a finance man, and I'm still not a finance man,” he told BIG BUILDER during a recent interview. “I've always had to have a good finance man.”