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About this blog: I am a native of Alameda County, grew up in Pleasanton and currently live in the house I grew up in that is more than 100 years old. I spent 39 years in the daily newspaper business and wrote a column for more than 25 years in add...  (More)

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The end of a home-building era

Uploaded: Nov 12, 2013
Corporate purchases or takeovers are given in business, but it is a shame to see the end of Shapell Homes as a privately held, family owned business. It was announced last week that Toll Brothers is buying the residential development division of Shapell for $1.6 billion.

Founded by brothers Nathan and David Shapell, and brother-in-law Max Webb, the firm built more than 70,000 upscale homes in California. I remember local executives telling me that Nathan, who survived a Nazi concentration camp in his native Poland, never borrowed money to execute their projects. The firm became known for buying ranch lands and then working to gain the entitlements, often for many years.

Those entitlements of unbuilt lots in California was what made Shapell an attractive company for Toll Brothers.

That's most evident in San Ramon where the company is building half of the 11,000 homes in the Dougherty Valley. That project took literally decades to move through the entitlement process and the law suits that challenged it, but Shapell Homes had the resources and the patience to see it through. When it finally opened, the company enjoyed a red-hot market, but since then has endured the downturn until seeing a much better 2013.

Shapell built several other neighborhoods in San Ramon and Danville, as well as Bonde Ranch in Pleasanton.

What set Shapell apart is that its senior people lived and worked in the San Ramon Valley and were active in community organizations. The presidents of the Northern California division I knew over the years—Dan Hancock (who still chairs the state's Little Hoover Commission) and Chris Truebridge (now working with Sunset Development Co. to redevelop an old office complex in Livermore) both had the authority and responsibility to make decisions to invest in the non-profit sectors of the communities.

That resulted in contributions that directly contributed to an improved quality of life, particularly in the San Ramon Valley.

Incidentally, the same was true of other builders before the industry largely consolidated into national, publicly owned firms.

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