Joe Eichler Profile - Page 2

Eichler's iron will, steadfast vision, and unwavering integrity were vital to his success as merchant builder

It was this respect for Anshen's character which lead Eichler to entrust him in 1949 with the designs for a new subdivision in Sunnyvale. Eichler had been building conventionally designed tract homes since 1946, but despite his success, Anshen sensed that Joe was unsatisfied with his product. Joe's younger son, Ned, who would later join the business, recalls a conversation between Anshen and his father in which the architect criticized his work. "Joe," he asked, "how can someone like you, who loves real architecture, build this crap?" Anshen proposed that Eichler hire him to design a subdivision. Eichler at first dismissed the idea with a scowl, claiming Anshen lacked the discipline to design within the strict budgets required in merchant building. Eventually, however, it was agreed that Anshen would develop three prototypical designs for a 50-unit subdivision in Sunnyvale. That subdivision sold out in two weeks, and the national press hailed their success as a bold, new kind of tract house.

The designs Anshen and Eichler had produced were radical and, to pursue the new direction they implied, would require more-sophisticated salesmanship than Eichler had used so far. Anshen recommended they partner with a friend of his, Jim San Jule, who had a penchant for managing difficult publicity. Anshen introduced Eichler to San Jule, whose background could not have been more different than Eichler's. A union organizer, and former agent with the OSS, the wartime intelligence agency which would become the CIA, San Jule had arrived in San Francisco in 1932, after riding around the country on freight trains, and working at odd jobs to get by. San Jule's obvious toughness and resourcefulness impressed Eichler enormously. Joe Eichler, the tough-talking, cigar-smoking New Yorker, admired San Jule's equally rugged character, and this admiration lead to a close personal friendship.

Toughness and arrogance characterized Eichler's new company, and Eichler began a campaign—a crusade of sorts—to develop his new houses around the Bay Area. His confidence in the company's new designs, and his vision of himself as a righteous pioneer, made Eichler an imposing new presence in the merchant-builder scene. His arrogance of purpose, however, would also threaten his success when it came to persuading city officials to permit his radical designs.

On one occasion, when Eichler was required to present a proposed subdivision before the city council of Palo Alto, which even in those days was a very sophisticated group, his zeal got the better of him, and he risked derailing the entire approval process. Representing their close-knit university community, the Palo Alto council was especially circumspect when examining building and land-use proposals within their borders. During one hearing, a dispute arose over a relatively minor issue, and Eichler blew up, giving the council members a terrific blast. Jim San Jule recalls, "He gave this tremendously arrogant, angry speech about the superiority of his designs and the national press they had attracted." Calling the council members disparaging names, he accused them of being ignorant of the benefits he was providing. The next day, San Jule asked Eichler to defer from representing their projects before civic authorities. Explaining that he felt as strongly as Eichler did about their work, San Jule persuaded Eichler that he would be a more diplomatic, although equally determined public spokesman. Eichler grumbled about this criticism, but eventually agreed, and he never again appeared before a city council.

Eichler was equally tough around the office. As one employee recalled, "He always had a frown on his face, grumbling at people." However, regardless of his demeanor, Eichler's tremendous honesty and ethical integrity earned him unusually strong employee loyalty. His stand against racial discrimination and his devotion to modern aesthetics, despite harsh and protracted criticism on both counts, gained him the loyalty of his largely liberal staff, and eventually the respect of his detractors. When his architects came up with the atrium plan, probably the most distinctive and popular design feature of Eichler Homes, the builders objected strenuously, pointing out the complexity of construction and the additional detailing required. But Eichler stayed true to his architects' designs, and eventually the bugs were worked out of the building process. In the end, even those in the production staff who had decried the idea came to respect Eichler's unrelenting stand.

Eichler's success is all the more remarkable, considering the wholly original approach he and his company took to their home-building process. He ruled his company with an unfaltering will and it took tremendous vigilance on everyone's part to ensure the company's success. San Jule, who remained with the company until 1955, remembered the strain was enormous. He claims Eichler and he both neglected their families while working 12 to 14 hours a day every day of the week. Even when Eichler had achieved a smooth, dependable working method, he strove for newer challenges, eventually pioneering his ideas in an urban setting, with townhouses and high rises in San Francisco.