Young Eli Broad, a bright, broke, freshly certified public accountant, closed what proved to be his most important deal in 1956: in exchange for free space in the small Detroit office of Builder Donald Kaufman, he agreed to do the contractor's bookkeeping. Broad quickly sensed that rich rewards awaited anyone who could bring order to the splintered, untidy, often wasteful world of home building. Within months, the accountant and the contractor formed Kaufman and Broad Building Co. and laid the foundation for one of the industry's fastest-growing giants.

Today the Los Angeles-based company, under 39-year-old Chairman Broad (rhymes with road),...

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