Arthur Rutenberg, who started in the appliance business in Chicago but became one of the nation's best-known homebuilders, died suddenly late Wednesday. He was 89. Until a few hours before his death, the legendary co-founder of megabuilder U.S. Home was at his desk in the Clearwater headquarters of Arthur Rutenberg Homes Inc. That firm, which he started in 1978 after leaving U.S. Home, is the nation's largest franchisor of custom homebuilding companies. "There was no sign when he left us" of any problems, his son Barry, said Friday. "My wife and I affectionately refer to him as a force of nature and a couple of people said, 'We all knew we'd lose him some time' but didn't expect it because of his focus and determination." Throughout Rutenberg's long career, his companies built tens of thousands of homes in Florida and other states. When wearing a company shirt while traveling, his son is still approached by people who say, "I grew up in a Rutenberg home" or "I live in a Rutenberg home." Many Rutenberg houses are in Clearwater and other parts of the Tampa Bay area. Previous coverage: Inside the mind of Arthur Rutenberg Developer Les Rubin, a former business partner of Rutenberg, considered him a friend and mentor. "Art was always tough, but a very good person and always fair,'' Rubin said Friday. "You could learn a lot working with him. Rutenberg and brother Charlie originally sold appliances in Chicago, where they realized that bigger-ticket items brought bigger profits. "They figured out it took about as much time to sell a toaster as a refrigerator so they liked selling the big stuff," said Barry Rutenberg. "They thought a house is bigger than a refrigerator." The opportunity to get in the housing business came when Charlie, on a visit to their father in Florida in the early 1950s, bought 10 lots at $1,000 each in the Skycrest area near Clearwater High School. Chucking the appliance business, the brothers came to Florida and started building houses. "Art went to the Clearwater public library, got a book on framing, got his license," his son said. Later recognized as the dean of Florida home design, Art Rutenberg is credited with introducing the split-bedroom floor plan, widening hallways and doors and positioning the kitchen in the heart of the house to afford views of the pool and lanai. Rutenberg Homes grew quickly — its first models sold for $9,900 — and merged with the smaller U.S. Home in 1969. After quintupling the size of U.S. Home as president, Rutenberg left in 1970 and ventured out on his own again. He hired Rubin from Atlanta to serve as comptroller but a recession dampened plans. "So in '74, I left and he offered to help me both financially and as a mentor," Rubin said. Rutenberg became a partner in Rubin Development, which built the Rubin Icot Center on Ulmerton Road in Clearwater. After his non-compete clause with U.S. Home expired, Rutenberg returned to the homebuilding business full force in 1978, constructing houses himself as well as selling franchises. "From '78 to'86, we owned building companies and had franchises, some of which we owned," Barry Rutenberg said. "In 1986, the decision was made to be 100 percent independently owned franchisees." Today, Arthur Rutenberg Homes, of which Barry is chairman, has 43 franchises in eight states, including three in the Tampa Bay area. The company itself has a total of about 110 employees in corporate offices in the Icot Center, Indianapolis and Charlotte, N.C. During the housing boom of the mid-2000s, about 20 percent of Rutenberg homes sold to investors. In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) when the market plunged in 2008, Rutenberg said it was wrong to blame homebuilders for the crash as some critics did. "Builders will sell to willing buyers," he said, noting that many investors hid their intentions and lenders made risky loans. "There's nothing unethical, immoral or illegal about selling to an investor." Even as he approached his 90s, Rutenberg remained active in the business. He was "very good at delegating," his son said, but was constantly looking for ways to improve the company and even personally checked out model homes. "People (would) ask me, 'How is Art? and I'd say, 'he's only working five and a half days a week now,'" he said. "He was fully engaged in thinking of where the company was going. He earned the respect and admiration of the people who are here, not to mention having personal relationships with many." According to his son, Rutenberg also had a "real appetite for life" and once served as head of the national Outward Bound, a nonprofit organization that provides outdoor leadership programs. He flew helicopters and planes, and loved to travel including cruises with his wife, Jane, and on family get-togethers. And throughout his long life Rutenberg retained a wry sense of humor. In his 2008 interview with the Times, he joked about his decision to let two men half his age take over the company's day to day operations. Rutenberg retained a title: "Aged Chairman with Unlimited Meddling Rights." Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.