At 89, iconic Arizona homebuilder Ira Fulton proclaims he proudly makes money because the more he makes, the more he can give away. The Tempe-born philanthropist, best known for his Fulton Homes empire of new homes – about 1,500 home constructions a year – especially likes to challenge the benefactors of his largess to raise big dollars on their own so he can match them dollar for dollar.
“I say every dollar they raise, I will match every year … If they raise $25,000, I give them another $25,000,” he said.
At the top of that giving has been Arizona State University, which received more than $180 million. That gained naming rights for the Ira A. Fulton of College of Engineering, which today has 25 undergraduate programs and 46 separate graduate programs. Combined, those programs enroll 20,275 students. Another gift of $100 million led to the naming of ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton College of Education (now Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education). It was named for Fulton’s wife who died in 2015 and an education alumna of ASU. The administrative building at ASU, with offices of President Michael Crow, is named the Fulton Center. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Fulton and Mary Lou gave more than $50 million to Brigham Young University for a new engineering building and the creation of four chairs named for Mary Lou. Other recipients were the University of Utah and Utah Valley University, which named its library for them. Fulton provides financial help to individual students as long as they maintain a B average.
Business Week once ranked Fulton 36th among the “50 Most Generous Philanthropists in the U.S.” The Tempe High School graduate made his fortune by starting in the men’s clothing business, then founding Fulton Homes in 1976 and seeing it grow with its promotional mantra, “You’re Proud to Own, We’re Proud to Build.”
But Fulton likes to note that he diversified his entrepreneurial skills — insurance, dairy, manufacturing, loans, leasing, clothing, home building, auto parts, tires, real estate development, and more. As a boy, living across the street from Tempe High, he early showed an enterprising character. He was washing dishes at his mother’s café at age 6. By the time he was 11, Fulton was named the number one newspaper carrier for the Arizona Republic. “I learned early in life that being poor sucked,” he said.
Though he never completed his degree at Arizona State College where he went on an athletic scholarship, Fulton found a job with the National Cash Register where he distinguished himself as National Salesman of the Year. From there he created a string of companies. The big break came when, as a consultant, he rescued Eagleson’s Big and Tall men’s clothiers in 1974. At the time, it amounted to just two stores in southern California — on the brink of bankruptcy. Fulton bought it and expanded to 33 retail stores and made millions. His involvement in a wholesale buying group reached $225 million in revenue.
Then drawing from his profits from clothing, he launched Fulton Homes and saw it catch the wave of galloping population growth in the Valley. He fostered a workforce that he insisted be kind, caring, and responsive to potential homebuyers. To date, his company has built more than 100 home communities, mostly in the East Valley. Fulton’s son Doug Fulton is now CEO. The 2020 Ranking Arizona puts Fulton Homes as No. 4 among the state’s homebuilders.
The octogenarian takes pride in that he handsomely benefitted BYU, the largest religious U.S. university, and ASU, the largest public university. He says he has never added up all his giving. “You learn nothing from other people’s mistakes,” he said. Fulton admits he has made his own mistakes.
“You look at the successes and build on the successes. With successes, you make more money. When you try to figure out why you made mistakes, you’re just wasting your time.”
“I build the best homes in the country,” said Fulton, who lives in a grand home on a man-made lake in his development in southwest Chandler, a stone’s throw from Fulton Elementary School.
“I was taught to respect people,” he said. “What goes around comes around. If somebody needed some help, I was always there to help them.” He told about one of his latest philanthropies: setting up a program with Mongolia to allow six young persons to attend Brigham Young University – Hawaii.
“I’ve always noticed that if you work hard and learn from your experiences, you’ll get there,” he said.
“I want people to understand that it is fun to give.”