Apparently, Robert Toll, one of the founders of luxury home builder Toll Brothers Inc., was shopping for a possible successor when he met Douglas Yearley, Jr., now Toll's chief executive. Only Yearley didn't know it. At the time, he was a lawyer who learned, as many litigators do, that the practice of law wasn't satisfying. Yearley wasn't in the market for much more than a more satisfying job, probably something in real estate, since he liked fixing up houses. How Yearley went from lawyer on the run to CEO of Toll Brothers is a story of mentoring on steroids.
"I loved the education of law," he said. "I loved how law school rewired my brain and made me analyze and think and communicate. I did not like the practice. I was a litigator and didn't like being in the middle of the fight.
Meanwhile, "I owned an old home with my new wife in Haddonfield and every night I'd run home and renovate it. Even as a kid, I loved working with my hands. I loved banging nails and I renovated the entire house, every inch of it. I actually thought for a while maybe I'll buy old fixer uppers, fix them up with my own sweat and flip them," he said. But with "the timing of the market, it wouldn't have been a good idea.
Here's where Yearley's story takes a twist: "I saw an ad in the paper for an assistant to the CEO of a Philadelphia builder. I didn't even know who it was. I wasn't a Philadelphia kid. I wasn't a real estate lawyer. I applied for this job. I didn't even know if it was like a secretarial assistant. It didn't even describe the job. I come in. I met Bob Toll. I still really don't know the company. I knew they were a public home builder, but I didn't know anything about home building."
In talking, though, it turned out that Toll and Yearley had a lot in common.
"I went to Cornell. Bob went to Cornell. Bob went to law school and loved the education, hated the practice. I went to law school, loved the education, and hated the practice. He gave me a shot. He said, `Come on and I'll give you a shot, not as a lawyer. Bob liked to hire lawyers who wanted to become business people."
Yearley said he really had no goals at the time, other than to find a path. "I was still thinking, `Do I want to do this. Do I just want to renovate old homes? How can I give up the practice of law? I'm doing really well at Archer and Greiner.'
Even so, "I took a shot. Bob's been my boss for 25 years. He's now executive chairman. He made me CEO five years ago," Yearley said.
Yearley doesn't think Toll was shopping for a successor. "He was too young. He was 50. He's been quoted since [say he was looking for a successor]. There are articles from when I became CEO that when Bob met me he knew. I don't think so, but I think he knew that he found somebody that could help grow the company."
Toll put Yearley on a growth plan -- getting him very involved in land acquisition, which is the heart of the company's strategy. At the same time, he made him a project manager, in charge of overseeing the construction and selling of an individual development. That way Yearley learned the construction business along with sales and marketing.
But, as in everything, timing was key.
"What Toll knew was that we were in a housing recession," Yearley said. "The company had a lot of cash. We manage our company so conservatively that we always had cash for a rainy day because Bob knew through cycles you buy land in down markets at cheap prices to set up the hot markets. It doesn't mean we're not buying land now. We're always buying land, but we buy a lot of land in down cycles because we have the cash that others don't.
"So when Bob brought me in it was 1990. It was the RTC, the Resolution Trust Corporation, that was the federal entity that took over the savings and loans that all went bust. It was just being created," Yearley said.
"Bob said to me that my traditional land buyers are the guys in blue jeans meeting with the farmers and throwing back shots of whiskey with the farmers buying their farms," Yearley said. But times had changed, so Toll told Yearley he needed something different.
"`I need a guy that can put a suit on and that can go to a bank board room and buy land from the banks that are taking land back in foreclosure,' Yearley said that Toll told him. "So I became sort of the distressed land buyer, because the sellers are more sophisticated. They're institutional. They're the lenders. I ran around the country buying land and figuring out what new markets to enter."
Yearley's devotion to Toll has been tested because Toll insisted on recapping the weekend sales on Monday night meetings that stretched well beyond the end of Monday night football, a tragedy for a Giants fan like Yearley.
"So we have always had this Monday night culture where our bistro, our dining room is open. We all eat. We meet. If you figure 40 Mondays a year I've spent a thousand Monday nights turning the lights out with Bob. That could be 11:00, 12:00 at night. He always wanted to meet with me last from day one, even when I had more tenure later," Yearley said.
So what's it been like having that kind of relationship?