A tribute to the innovator who built his first house in 1951 and never looked back
A gentleman. A family man. Kind, generous, thoughtful. Unassuming and gracious. An anonymous philanthropist. A great businessman. A legend. These are just a few of the many descriptions penned by people offering condolences on the death of Bill Pulte, people who knew him well during his more than 65 years in home building. All are accurate, but one is missing: innovator.
Starting out as a carpenter while still in high school, Pulte built his first home, a five-room bungalow, near the Detroit City Airport, when he was just 18, with the help of five friends. The house sold for $10,000 and he never looked back. He built his first subdivision eight years later in 1959. In the ’60s, he started building farther afield, in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
In 1969, Pulte Homes became one of the first home building companies to become publicly owned, and by 1995 it had become the largest home builder in the country. Newcomers to the industry who view Pulte Homes as a company that’s been around a long time, a steady, perhaps even sedate, firm building middle-of-the-road type homes, may be surprised to learn just how innovative Bill Pulte’s company could be.
Going public allowed Pulte to extend its reach geographically and greatly diversify its product offerings. The company was now able to build low-cost projects for the FHA and VA markets, as well as medium-priced and high-priced homes purchased with conventional mortgages. Before long, it was also building townhouses, multifamily projects, and student housing.
In Chicago in the early 1970s, Pulte unveiled the Quadrominium, a structure consisting of four two-bedroom homes, each with its own entrance and garage, in a building that looked like a single large luxury home. Pulte was able to sell each individual unit for less than $20,000, opening up homeownership to more buyers. The name, thank goodness, didn’t stick, but the housing model did. In 1972, the company began offering its own financing to homebuyers at competitive mortgage rates. Shortly after, it added insurance-related and warranty services for its customers.
By the 1980s, Pulte Homes was building in 11 states and sought ways to ensure its growth didn’t affect the quality of the homes it was building. In 1980, it made a step in that direction by establishing “Pulte University” for entry-level hires. It took a bigger leap in 1989 with its Pulte Quality Leadership (PQL) program, which empowered everyone who worked on Pulte projects—employees, suppliers, and subcontractors alike—to come up with ways to improve the company’s operations. At one point, there were more than 150 teams working on improvements and innovations in construction, land management, sales and marketing, and finance.
The PQL program led the industry in ways to measure and codify how to build and sell homes. Among its achievements: creating a customer satisfaction measurement system; implementing a first-in-the-industry building science program; and developing performance requirements for the 200 or so processes involved in building a house.
The customer satisfaction system gave rise to the creation in the 1990s of descriptive profiles for Pulte’s buyers: families, singles, empty nesters, and extended families. Every land purchase and every home design had to have as its focus what Pulte called a targeted consumer group or TCG. Its incredible success in marketing new communities designed for older buyers is what led to the company’s $1.8 billion purchase of Del Webb in 2001.
These are but a few examples of the company’s many achievements over the years. A deeper look at its history clearly shows that Bill Pulte’s vision for creating communities not only helped define the shape of America’s suburbs, but his desire to build quality homes also served to transform the way that homes are built today.