Every other Monday, Robert “Bob” I. Toll visits the Horsham headquarters of the eponymous home-building company he started with his brother, Bruce, 52 years ago, and takes inventory.
No matter that the 78-year-old stepped down as executive chairman last year and makes his home primarily in Miami Beach. Toll, chairman emeritus, religiously reviews the prior week’s sales of Toll Bros. communities — 300-plus at the moment — and, based on what he hears, offers advice on how to keep numbers robust. When he’s not there in person, he calls in.
“I don’t miss any deal,” he said one autumn Monday from his spacious office, the walls covered with a lifetime of family photos. “It starts with the same basics as it started with in ’67.”
Since that first project in Caln Township, Bob Toll in particular has helped reimagine the housing market — and, in the process, made an indelible impact on the industry and the very landscape of the region and beyond with the company’s signature luxury homes.
“Bob stands apart as the one who built the company,” said John McManus, vice president and editorial director for the residential group at Hanley Wood, which publishes Builder magazine. “Part of the reason that Toll Bros. is so successful is Bob’s perceptiveness and astuteness in terms of demographic patterns.”
Toll Bros. made its name by anticipating trends, starting with the desirability of suburban living with a square of green in the back. The company would “purchase land in the Philadelphia area that was regarded as way out there,” McManus continued. “Then lo and behold, you would have a Route 95 project [that would] … affirm the brilliance of that kind of move. Bob worked and practiced and studied and did research on that phenomenon — how demographics, economics and infrastructure come together.”
The trade publication inducted both Tolls into its Builder Hall of Fame in 2017, in large part for industry innovations. Toll Bros. is credited with developing the concept of customization for high-volume home production. Perhaps most significant, the company managed to brand itself as a sought-after symbol of success.
“One of the striking characteristics of the Tolls is that they have a name that means something to consumers, more so than any brand in home construction,” McManus said. A Toll Bros. home “signifies a lifestyle for people who are living their dream.”
Toll, whose net worth Forbes estimated at $1 billion in 2018, said he never expected such success. After Cornell University, he attended law school at the University of Pennsylvania. Only a few months into his career, his father, a real estate developer in his own right, asked him to look into a legal matter.
“I cleaned up the mess and said, ‘Hey this was fun. I can do what the guys who created the mess in the first place better than they did,’” he said. So began his interest in building homes.
Toll Bros. went public in 1986 and spent the ’90s expanding across the country and defying skeptics. Besides single-family homes, the company also has developed active adult communities, residential rental properties, and urban high rises. Toll Bros. has a presence in 23 states and about 50 markets.
“In my career, approaching 30 years of following housing stocks, I think Toll Bros. is one of the best managed companies,” said Ivy Zelman, CEO of Cleveland-based Zelman & Associates, a boutique research and investment firm focused on residential real estate. “Unlike a lot of builders, they were very conservative in how they underwrote land and where they bought land. Bob likes to say, ‘We only buy land at the corner of Main and Main.’ … They never let their balance sheets get out of whack, never took more debt than they could handle.”
As he spoke with a visitor, Toll glanced at his watch periodically, eager to get to his meeting on sales numbers. “I’m still involved, more as a kibitzer than as a leader,” he said in measured tones. “I’m assured that my thoughts and musings about our planning and where we’re headed are taken with serious regard. And therefore, I do have an influence.”
His words include a splash of his characteristic dry humor. But they also convey the essence of what has made Toll Bros. a success: that ability to see opportunities. “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor,” Toll said.
Take apartments. The idea of a home builder venturing into the rental market seemed, well, a bit risky. But in 2001, Toll Bros. Apartment Living developed its first high-end rental complex in the Washington area. Toll took the view that he already had a workforce scouting single-home locations — why not also look out for potential rental sites? Currently, about 20,000 units are in the pipeline, according to Frederick N. Cooper, Toll’s senior vice president for finance, international development and investor relations.
Arguably, Toll applies a similar philosophy — seeing the upside — to his social justice-focused philanthropy. In 1990, he and wife Jane, whom he refers to as his “honey,” supported 57 West Philadelphia elementary students through Say Yes to Education, helping them through 12th grade and covering the cost of vocational training or college. The couple also contribute to Seeds of Peace, which brings together youth from conflict areas such as the Middle East to a leadership program in Maine. Other charitable causes include Penn’s Law School, affordable housing, and arts and cultural programs.
For himself and his company, the goal is to keep at it, he said.
In May, Toll Bros. acquired Sharp Residential to expand into the Atlanta market. In September, it bought Sabal Homes to expand into South Carolina. The two builders target consumers “a notch or two” below the luxury market, Cooper said. That might look like another head scratcher for a luxury brand but the way Cooper, a protégé, explained it, the idea sounds prescient.
“We don’t want to be waiting 10 years for millennials to buy their big house,” he explained. “We want to catch them now.”
Or as Toll, himself, put it: “Some see the light at the end of the tunnel as a train coming toward us. Others see it as a great opportunity.”