Robert Toll, who co-founded Toll Brothers and helped transform the regional housing builder into a national development firm, died Friday at his home in New York. He was 81 and had Parkinson’s disease.
The company’s former chairman and CEO was born in 1940 and grew up in a Philadelphia suburb, where his first exposure to real estate came from his father, the Wall Street Journal reported. Toll’s father was a real estate broker who bought cheap real estate bonds, acquired property and owned apartment buildings during the Depression.
Toll earned an undergraduate degree at Cornell University and a law degree back home at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s. But it didn’t take long for Toll to tire of practicing law in Philadelphia and turn his eyes to real estate.
Toll and his younger brother Bruce co-founded Toll Brothers in 1967 and started by building two model colonial-style homes in suburban Philadelphia. Soon after, Toll had contracts to build 20 more homes.
The company’s first homes were worth around $17,500, but the brothers were advised by their real estate-savvy father to construct nicer homes that could fetch around $25,000. “Those houses today sell for a million dollars,” Bruce Toll told the Journal.
The housing development firm went public in 1986 and expanded from the Northeast to the West Coast, Southeast, Texas and other areas of the country.
Toll, who served as the company’s chairman and CEO until 2010, believed that it was the kitchen and primary bedroom suite that sold a home. He was known for keeping a pitchfork in the corner of his office to remind people to be careful when buying land, Toll Brothers chairman and CEO Doug Yearley told the publication.
Toll would use the Socratic method in staff meetings and advised managers not to travel on Mondays so that they could go over weekend sales and discuss other projects. The Monday meetings would often keep Toll in the office past midnight, according to Yearley.
Toll didn’t foresee the significant decline in housing and land prices that began in 2006 after home prices more than doubled in parts of the country during the early 2000s. The company was able to push through the bursting of the bubble in part because of the company’s strong financial position and focus on luxury homes.
Forbes estimated Toll’s net worth at $1.1 billion. He is survived by his wife Jane, his brother Bruce, five children and 12 grandchildren.
— Pat Ralph