Mobile home billionaire and philanthropist John Boll, who died last month in Detroit at the age of 93, didn’t have much when he was discharged from the United States Army in 1953 – but he had enough – and that “enough” eventually became more than he or anyone would ever need.
“I started my business in the 1950s with a wheelbarrow and a shovel,” he told the graduating class at Northwood University in 2013. “Along the way, we helped tens of thousands of people throughout Michigan and across the country establish their own households.”
How does a man with only some garden equipment and a 1949 powder-blue Mercury go on to assist so many people?
As a young man, John Boll had a vision and a grand goal. Burdened by the stigma attached to low-income housing, especially trailer-parks, the budding entrepreneur launched a construction company. He then set out to build mobile home neighborhoods unlike anyone had ever seen.
Boll named them “Chateau Communities” – an aspirational name that featured affordably-priced master planned areas with swimming pools, clubhouses and even fitness centers. Homeowners agreed to keep up their properties – no weeds or old sofas or beat up cars on the side. By the time Boll and his partners sold the whole business in 2003, the company operated 200 neighborhoods across 36 states.
What was his philosophy?
“I treat life as an adventure in which I use my time, talents and resources to glorify God while trying to engage, empower and love other people,” Boll would say.
It’s this philosophy and theology that were behind the builder’s success. He actually could have made more money earlier on by cutting corners and offering fewer amenities to his buyers. But he wasn’t just motivated to make money – he wanted to make a difference.
Married to Marlene for 68 years, the couple met in New York City, where his future bride performed with Radio City Music Hall’s famed Rockettes. Three children soon followed – John Jr., Lora and Kristine. All the while John began building one of the nation’s largest manufactured housing companies in the country.
Committed believers, the Bolls gave generously of their wealth to Christian organizations and various other causes. Recipients included pediatric hospitals, the YMCA, cancer research, private schools and colleges, as well as symphonies and various art associations.
“For a long time, we preferred to give back to our Lord and to our various communities in relatively quiet ways,” John shared. “But several years ago, in helping build the John and Marlene Boll YMCA in Detroit and some other projects, we realized that demonstrating we were behind something could help motivate others to give of their resources as well. It’s one of life’s greatest blessings for us to realize that honoring God has given us a reputation that benefits the endeavors we care about.”
Pastor and preacher David Jeremiah once asked, “If you were to write your life motto, what would it say? Look out for number one? Or look out for the needs of others?”
It’s a good question. Do we see possessions and resources as personal property or as gifts on loan from the Lord?
Someone once claimed John Boll, whose business dealings involved billions of dollars, lived a daring existence. He scoffed at such a suggestion. “In life’s most important things, I take no chances: I lean on God, and as long as He’s in charge, I don’t have a care in the world.”
Photo from Boll Family.