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Jim Walter Homes: Its life's work was unfinished

TAMPA — It was a good idea born of the simplest intentions.

More than 60 years ago, Jim Walter Homes became a frenzy, a household name, a springboard for something bigger — expansions into coal mining and high finance and press releases and Fortune 500.

Along the way, the good idea became a support beam in a monumental corporation.

In a newfangled world, it started to give.

• • •

NICE little unfinished houses to be moved. $895. 9410 11th St. S.S.

Jim Walter, eternally industrious, made a habit of scouring bargains in the newspaper classified ads from the time he was 11. By 13, he was earning $5 a week mopping floors and making sodas at a Plant City drugstore. He spent part of World War II with the Navy on a Pacific destroyer. By 23, he was back in Plant City driving a citrus packing truck for his father, bringing in $50 per week.

He checked out the little house advertised in the 1946 newspaper. Author Alvin Moscow described the barren building in his 1995 book, Building a Business: The Jim Walter Story:

The interior was bare and raw. The subfloor was made of tongue-in-groove pine, the ceiling rafters were exposed, and the rooms were outlined in upright two-by-fours.

Walter scraped together $395 of savings and a $500 loan to buy the house. In three days, he turned around and sold it. His takeaway? $300. Six weeks of hauling fruit.

His first office sat outside Highway 60 in rural Tampa. On opening day, he and then-partner O.L. Davenport sold 27 houses. The shell bungalows were a gem for veterans returning from war, for people who owned lots, lived in rural settings and had the wherewithal to spill sweat and nails.

People like Walter.

"He was the kind of guy that made it from nothing," said friend and former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. "He was a great, great man and had a story of the past."

• • •

A Jim Walter home guaranteed some things.

"Even as a kid growing up, I always heard people refer to the Jim Walter home," said Joseph Narkiewicz of the Tampa Bay Builder's Association. "That meant you were going to get it at a good price and you were going to get it fast."

Buyers clamored to attend his model home expositions, to see his vans plastered with "NOTHING DOWN! 100% FINANCING! LOW PAYMENTS!" The business spread cross-country. Some wondered if the man was a fairy tale. But Walter, very real and thriving in the 1960s, began to think about the future.

"We diversified out of being just a builder of shell homes because we didn't want to be in something so cyclical that we would go up and down like a yo-yo," Walter told Florida Trend magazine in 1985.

Walter Industries came to own coal mines, oil and gas wells, marble, granite and limestone quarries, gypsum plants, jewelry and insurance businesses. Headlines trickled and surged with business. Earnings Up 111 Percent. Walter Corp. Doubles Last Year's Income. Walter Reports Profit Increase.

There were blips — unsuccessful acquisitions, Chapter 11 bankruptcy, lawsuits. But when Walter retired as chairman in 1995, his business had transformed into an industrial conglomerate with more than $1-billion in yearly sales. Those quaint affordable homes, though, limped along in the shadow.

"He was a trailblazer and an entrepreneur. It was a unique idea and it was extremely successful," said Al Austin, a noted Tampa developer and friend of Walter's. "But it kind of went out the window with newer trends. What he had was out of step with current interests."

Look-alike homes priced high and perched on cul-de-sacs raged through the 1990s and 2000s.

Jim Walter Homes wasn't that. The company dabbled in subdivisions, said Walter Industries communications director, Michael Monahan, but the original low-cost model persevered. The modern Jim Walter home still costs around $90,000 to $100,000.

Profits for Jim Walter Homes dropped off. And the business, once known for its flash construction, caught a reputation for moving at a snail's pace.

Walter Industries decided to close the dwindling homes leg and work toward becoming a focused natural resources and energy business — a greater value to shareholders, Monahan said.

"This is the last piece that we needed to complete this transformation," Monahan said. "It really turns the page for us in what Walter Industries will look like in the future. ... We obviously could not have gotten to where we are without knowing who we were back then."

After six decades and more than 350,000 homes, Jim Walter Homes closed for good Tuesday.

• • •

Jim Walter died in 2000. His friend Dick Greco still recalls his tales of driving unpaved roads on citrus routes. Of the tiny diamond ring he wore to remind him of goals.

When he heard the news Tuesday, he felt strange.

"It was hurtful in a way, because he was such a good friend and I know what the entire thing meant to him," Greco said. "It was one of the big starting points he had in his life. To most people, it's just another business that closed, but it was a business that to me demonstrated what America was. You could come from a little place in Plant City on the farm and have a Fortune 500 company."

The business will finish homes under construction. And on jimwalterhomes.com, you'll still find a photo of a family smiling, standing in an unfinished maze of beams.

Information from Times files was used in this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Jim Walter Homes: Its life's work was unfinished 01/09/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 5:54pm]
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