Chairman and CEO of Toll Brothers, a Fortune 500 publicly traded home building company, which Toll and his brother Bruce founded in 1967. The company entered the New York City market in March 2004, completing the North8 Condominiums in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. The company currently has four projects under way in the city.
What is your full name?
Robert Irwin Toll.
What is your birth date?
December 30, 1940.
Where did you grow up?
Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.
Where do you live?
I live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Do you have any other homes?
Yes. In Telluride [Colorado]; Casco, Maine; and New York City.
Where in New York City?
On 85th and Madison.
What’s your favorite thing to do in New York City?
Go to the opera.
What’s your favorite New York City restaurant?
Babbo [at 110 Waverly Place].
What is your favorite borough and why?
Manhattan, because it’s got more action, more food, more shows, more opera, more music than the others.
Toll Brothers is known for building McMansions. Are your homes all McMansions?
No, not at all. The home in Bucks County has an 8-foot ceiling on the first floor. There’s no vaulted ceiling. It’s not a big home compared to many of the homes that we have built. I would guess that it’s under 5,000 square feet. It’s an old Pennsylvania farmhouse, the first part of which was built in the early 1700s.
What is the first job you ever had?
I was a counselor at Camp Powhatan in Otisfield, Maine, at about age 18, and then I came back and ran the boating department at the waterfront at that camp for a couple of years. It no longer exists. It’s now known as Seeds of Peace [founded in 1993], which my wife and I are very much involved in. The camp brings [teenage] Arabs and Israelis together for summer sessions. What is the best piece of advice you have received? In Plato’s “Apology of Socrates,” he said, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s a wise man who knows what he doesn’t know.”
So what don’t you know?
What’s the last book you read?
I just completed the biography of Andrew Jackson [“Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times,” by H. W. Brands]. I’m 150 pages into “Caesar [Life of a Colossus,” by Adrian Goldsworthy]. I am also reading “A Sportsman’s Sketches” by Ivan Turgenev. What was the biggest obstacle to your success? It was in 1974, when the country was running out of money. You couldn’t get a mortgage — not to be confused with these times. You can still get a mortgage today. There were literally no mortgages in ’74.
What has been your toughest time on a personal level?
Probably a divorce about 30-some-odd years ago. I’m now married 30-some-odd years to my second wife. I met my honey [Jane] at the end of ’74. A friend hooked us up. What adjective would you use to describe yourself? Involved.
How do you deal with antagonists?
Some I ignore. Some I try to reduce the level of antagonism. Some I guess we go to battle. But I don’t have personal antagonists I battle with.
Do you have any remorse about any of your projects?
Sure. Which one? I don’t care to say. There was one out of 1,000 communities we’ve had that I wasn’t proud of. I felt bad that I didn’t leave the quality and the value behind that we should have. Then there are more than several communities that have been a financial failure, and I wish I hadn’t done those.
How do you blow off steam?
I play a lot of tennis, I play a lot of golf, I ski a lot, I sail a lot, I swim, I fish, I read, I go to a lot of opera, I see a couple of shows, I love to go out to eat.
Do you cook at all?
I don’t cook. My honey cooks quite a bit.
What’d you eat for breakfast today?
Cottage cheese, a croissant, Tiptree marmalade, double espresso, fresh squeezed orange juice.
What do you read every day?
I try to read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
What’s your worst vice?
I don’t know. I smoke cigars once in a while, but I don’t think that’s bad. Maybe I play too much golf, but I only play once a week. In the past, it was leaving my family too much to sail competitively. That was a mistake.
What’s your most prized possession?
I like my dogs. I’ve got a Goldendoodle, a cross between a Poodle and a Golden Retriever. I’ve got two Labradors. My most prized possession? I guess my artwork.
What’s the most money you’ve spent on a piece of art?
Not for publication.
What kind of art collection do you have?
Extensive and eclectic.
Interview by Lauren Elkies