Sunday, December 17, 2017
Business

Homebuilder legend Arthur Rutenberg dead at 89

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.

 
Comments

Bitcoin futures begin trading on CME, price little changed

NEW YORK — Another security based on the price of bitcoin, the digital currency that has soared in value and volatility this year, began trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Sunday. The CME Group, which owns the exchange, opened up bitcoin f...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Fueled by indulgence and machismo, restaurants are a hotbed for sexual harassment

Fueled by indulgence and machismo, restaurants are a hotbed for sexual harassment

When Brenda Terry was 16 and living in St. Louis, she was a host and food runner at a sports bar where female employees wore cute little cheerleading skirts. One night, she said, a patron grabbed her crotch. She ran to her management team and they de...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Taxpayer subsidies of Tampa golf courses are on the rise as struggles continue

Taxpayer subsidies of Tampa golf courses are on the rise as struggles continue

TAMPA — For the half of the year that Harry Nichols lives in Oldsmar, he plays 18 holes several times a month at Rocky Point Golf Course. On a good day, Nichols said he shoots close to par on the Dana Shores course. And if he’s really lucky, it’ll on...
Published: 12/15/17
Updated: 12/16/17
Pigs can be therapy animals too. So can horses and rats and cats and llamas and … (w/video)

Pigs can be therapy animals too. So can horses and rats and cats and llamas and … (w/video)

Shrieks of laughter echoed off the walls of the hospital as Thunder the mini pig flopped onto his side and the children huddled around him, scratching his pink, hairy belly. He and his wet-nosed partner, Bolt, drew patients in wheelchairs and bandage...
Published: 12/15/17
Vology landlord challenges property tax assessment

Vology landlord challenges property tax assessment

LARGO — Eight months after paying $10.15 million for the office building that houses IT services company Vology, a New York company is suing the Pinellas County Property Appraiser and Florida Department of Revenue contending its $5.5 million tax asse...
Published: 12/15/17
Florida’s $1.1 billion Hardest Hit Fund winding down after some hard knocks

Florida’s $1.1 billion Hardest Hit Fund winding down after some hard knocks

In 2010, Florida was in the throes of an unprecedented housing crisis. One in every eight homes was in some stage of foreclosure. Today, the foreclosure rate is one in every 83. Because of that enormous drop, Florida’s Hardest Hit Fund will s...
Published: 12/15/17
Report: Rich will get still richer unless policies change

Report: Rich will get still richer unless policies change

By ELAINE KURTENBACHTOKYO — Global inequality has stabilized at high levels in recent years, a report said Friday, despite gains among the poor in China and much milder disparities in incomes and wealth in Western Europe. The World Inequality Report ...
Published: 12/15/17
How the Disney/Fox deal will shake up Hollywood

How the Disney/Fox deal will shake up Hollywood

Associated Press NEW YORK — After years of tremors, the earthquake that had long been predicted finally shook Hollywood. Disney’s deal to purchase most of 21st Century Fox ends the era of the "Big Six" major movie studios, toppling one ...
Published: 12/15/17
St. Petersburg’s Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement set to be complete in 2019

St. Petersburg’s Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement set to be complete in 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, under construction since 2015, is scheduled to be complete by the summer of 2019.The five-story, 137,100-square-foot building will house businessman and collector Rudy Ciccarello’s...
Published: 12/15/17
Obamacare enrollment ends today, but some can get an extension

Obamacare enrollment ends today, but some can get an extension

Today is the day that open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act will close for most people. But those affected by the slew of hurricanes that pummelled Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and other states earlier this year can take advantage of a two-week ...
Published: 12/15/17