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From constructing a single structure in Detroit that sold for $10,000, William J. Pulte launched a company that became one of the nation’s largest home builders.

Over the years, colleagues say, the Michigan native left a sturdy foundation for others in the industry.

“He was one of the people who broke the path for builders to come,” said Lee Schwartz, executive vice president for government relations at the Home Builders Association of Michigan. “He certainly was a major force. Others patterned himself after what he put together.”

Pulte died Wednesday at age 85, the company announced.

“It is with a heavy heart that we share that William J. Pulte, the anonymous philanthropist, family man and founder of PulteGroup, passed away today after 85 great years of helping people in need and building highly successful businesses,” his grandson, Bill Pulte, said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are deeply saddened by his passing, but we rejoice and celebrate in his life of charity and family.”

At age 18, Pulte built his first home, a five-room bungalow, near Detroit’s City Airport in 1950 with the help of five of his high school friends. He used a floor plan he saw in the “Home of the Week” section of the Detroit Times, according to PulteGroup.

Throughout the 1950s, Pulte expanded the business, earned renown as a custom builder and constructed individual homes in Grosse Pointe.

Some nine years after the launch, his company started building its first subdivision, called Concord Green, in Bloomfield Township.

“We didn’t sell too many homes at Concord Green in the beginning, maybe three in 120 days, so I asked a Realtor what we were doing wrong,” Pulte told The Detroit News in 2000. “He said we were overbuilding the homes, so we changed the models, added some square footage and sold 20 in the next 60 days.”

The 1960s also marked more expansions, with his business entering the Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and Atlanta markets, The News reported. The company also went public, with Pulte becoming chairman and president.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Pulte offered larger homes to parents of baby boomers, launched a mortgage company and started to dominate the residential real estate market.

His business underwent name changes, acquired land and smaller competitors as well as branched out to build homes for mostly retirees under its Del Webb brand. 

The company, which completed its 500,000th home in 2007 and grew to operate in more than 50 markets, eventually became the nation’s largest home builder through purchasing Centex Corp.

Pulte became a billionaire, earning placement on the Forbes 400 Richest Americans list several times.

“Bill was not only a legend in home building, but a real gentlemen,” said Howard Fingeroot, area president at M/I Homes of Michigan. “He taught so many so much. I am proud that I had the opportunity to know him and work with him.”

In 2008, amid the housing crisis, Pulte sold 760,000 shares to satisfy margin calls. Believing the worst over, he retired from the directors’ board in 2010.

In 2014, it relocated its headquarters from Bloomfield Hills to Atlanta. In 2016, it recorded $7.5 billion in revenue and employed more than 4,500.

Last year, Pulte was inducted into the Home Builders Association of Southeastern Michigan Hall of Fame.

“I consider myself incredibly lucky to have never worked a day in my life, because I truly loved what I did and the tremendous people I got to work with,” he said at the time.

Pulte, who lived in Naples, Florida, is survived by his wife, Karen; 13 children; 27 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be held 2-8 p.m. next Wednesday and Thursday at Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors, 1368 Crooks Road near Maple Road in Clawson.

The funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at the Holy Name Catholic Church, 630 Harmon Street in Birmingham.

A memorial mass will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday, March 26, at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Naples, Fla.

Memorials should be sent to International Samaritan, the Center for Interreligious Understanding or the Guadalupe Soup Kitchen.

cramirez@detroitnews.com

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