Most businessmen go to great lengths to get their name out. But Jack Apple, home builder and real estate investor, works from a small, unassuming First Avenue S office with no signs. He doesn't even list his phone number.
"That's just Jack," said Linton Tibbetts, the former owner of Cox Lumber who has known him for almost all of Apple's 50 years in business. "He's honest, very shrewd, but quiet. I don't know of any contractor that made more money than Jack Apple."
Apple admits that hiding his phone number is unorthodox.
"Seems a little crazy, doesn't it?" said Apple, 82, who has built nearly 4,000 homes since the first one he raised by hand in 1947. "But I found, if you treat people fairly, others find out about it."
Apple might be the most successful developer you never heard of. He built homes and apartments. He pioneered models for affordable housing. He developed subdivisions in St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach and Apollo Beach, but also explored, early on, markets like Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
"He had great foresight of where to make the next move," said Bob Fehr, who sold to Apple when Fehr worked for Pinellas Lumber and later when he ran Cox.
Apple started in the restaurant business after World War II, but it didn't work out.
Then he saw other veterans like himself wanting homes in Florida, so he learned carpentry and found a piece of land in the middle of a field near 40th Avenue N.
He bought some lumber with the last of his cash and nailed together a two-bedroom home. Two years later, he sold it for twice what it cost to build. He was off.
Apple did his homework. He knocked on the doors of Francis Corr, Bill Upham, Martin Roess and other prominent figures of the era.
"I needed to know who made the money and how did they get it," he said.
Apple also saw that it was hard even in the 1960s for people to afford waterfront living. He heard of leaseholding deals in Hawaii, so he brought the practice to Florida, selling people homes but renting them the land.
As ground has continued to be the most expensive part of home ownership, various forms of leaseholding are now at the forefront of cures to the state's affordable-housing problems.
"I always thought I was just doing the Christian thing, making houses reasonable enough to live in," Apple said.
Over the years, he leveraged his success to help others. He has become the figure he once sought for advice.
"When you come in still wet behind the ears, you hold some of these guys in awe," said Rodney Fischer, who learned from Apple on his way to becoming executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. "You can learn a lot by realizing you don't know it all."
Fehr said Apple vouched for other builders as they were starting out. He has also become a go-to guy for various investments, including Premier Group Realty.
"He's like an entrepreneur, always trying to find some way to invest some money," said Doug Apple, who now runs the home-building business for his father. "He's kind of like the last maverick out there."
Apple is reluctant to compare himself to modern builders.
Others say men like Apple knew how to drive their own nails and understood the business more than today's number crunchers.
Apple says he just built homes he would want to live in, and he does live in one in Yacht Club Estates among customers.
He met his second wife, Norma, whom he describes as the best thing that has ever happened in his life, when he built her a home.
"He's the only developer I know who lives in his own development," said Dwight Livingstone, a friend and neighbor living in his second Apple home after a work transfer forced him to sell his first.
"He's a self-made, self-taught multimillionaire with a trophy wife."
Apple credits his success to gumption and preparation more than promotion.
"When opportunity meets preparedness, you have success," he said, contemplating the recent market slowdown while shuffling new contracts on his desk. "I've always been in the background. But I've always had plenty to do."
Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.