A Salute to Bill Pulte — RIP
Professionally, life was not complicated for Bill Pulte.
His personal and family life aside, who he was and what he was were one and the same thing.
“I am a builder,” he’d tell you. It mattered to him that that’s who and what he was. It meant two things. One, being a builder meant being clever, hardworking, and resourceful in every way it takes to give a family a direct and accessible pathway to owning a new home.
And two, it meant educating, training, and carrying that same message to dozens, to hundreds, ultimately, to thousands of men and women who’d work for and with William J. Pulte.
As if to say to everyone he’d encounter in his long, rich work life, “I am a builder and you too–if you’re willing to work at it, and obsess on all the endless details and put out all the passionate energy it takes–can know the uniquely gratifying sensation that connects a builder to a new home owner.”
You do it. You are it. You love it. That’s who you are, and it defines and binds you in a way that can barely be explained to the life of a man and woman who take the keys to a new home, to a community of homes that you can drive through 50 years later and feel a swell of pride and accountability, and importantly, to everyone who calls him or herself a builder.
Bill Pulte died yesterday after a brief illness. He was 85. He came to home building as a Detroit-area teenager in a flash of epiphany. For another seven decades, he never really left it, and today the profession and business community of home building bear distinct imprints, inspirations, and almost inexpressible impacts his work made on half a million new home owners, and legions of workmates and partners he trained in the craft, art, science, and alchemy of home building.
“Bill was a pioneer in every sense of the word,” his grandson Bill Pulte said to me yesterday. “Most people think of him as a pioneer in home construction and engineering and processes and financing and business modeling, and that’s true. But, what often goes left unsaid was his pioneering approach to the consumer, the home buyer. He was always working to understand how that person wanted to live in his or her home so that he could do that, design that, build that, and make it affordable to that person. For Bill, in both his professional life and all his charitable work through his career, he always loved to do it for the other person.”
The meaning of that word and his very own identity met one day, as a 16-year-old carpenter and mason, in an instant he recalled with Big Builder contributing writer Teresa Burney and me in 2010, as BIG BUILDER inducted him into its Hall of Fame. Here’s how he remembered the precise moment it occurred to him who and what he was and would be.
BB: At 18 [in 1950], you took a [house of the week] plan from the paper and built a house. What came before that? What was the lightbulb that went off that said what you were going to do?
WP: At 16 years old, I bought my first car, and my dad said to me, “I’m proud of you that you bought your first car, but how are you going to put gas in it?” I said, “Dad, I’ve never had an allowance, how about an allowance?” He said, “How about getting a job.” This actually happened. So I went out and got a job as a carpenter, and I really liked being a carpenter. The carpenter worked for a tradesman builder.
The builder was a mason. He had a mason crew, which was made up of his brothers and sons. So I worked as a mason on Saturdays and the rest of the week as a carpenter.
The builder drove a clunker car just like mine, which I paid $75 for, which was a lot of money then. Or at least for me it was. He had exactly the same kind of car. And I’ll tell you how bad it was. I had to put floorboards on it because you could see the street. I couldn’t take a date out because she could see the street.
Anyway, I’m up on a roof nailing one day, and this builder drives up with a brand-new Cadillac with a glass of iced tea on the dashboard. Well, I could see the iced tea from up above. At 16, you’re very smart, you have got to remember that. And I said, “I’m smarter than that guy, I want to be a builder,” and I have never changed my mind since that day.
With all due respect to his own limitations–“I’m not a finance man”–Bill Pulte aimed to be the best and proudest of what he did, and it became a mission to spread and propagate being the best and proudest to people in what became a spoked network of field businesses, emanating, and ever-more-widely radiating out of the Bloomfield Hills, Mich. hub, into the Pulte Homes national empire.
“He focused always on making great products, homes, and neighborhoods for people, and he really focused on expanding the geography, and making them affordable to people coming of age as adults in the 1950s, 1960s, ’70s, 80s, and on and on,” grandson Bill Pulte observed. “Affordability was always one of his priorities.”
For all of those who awaken each day and go to sleep each night clearly, or even obtusely, identified as a home builder, Bill Pulte’s passing is a moment both of loss and recognition.
“Bill was one of the people, along with myself and others, who created a new industry out of an old industry,” said Eli Broad, co-founder of what is KB Home, and co-Detroit-area teenaged entrepreneur.
The big business that is a $250 billion-plus industry sector of high volume home building has lost one of its pioneering giants. And at the same time, in Bill Pulte’s name, which became an exclusive trustmark for people who would scrimp, save, and work for the privilege of homeownership in America, we recognize the great gift people get when he or she can honestly say these words–words that matter, and words that make a difference in people’s lives.
“I am a builder.”