A recession devastated Utah homebuilding when Ellis Ivory was an LDS Church mission president in England from 1979 to 1982. It evaporated the fortune he had built as a land developer and left Ivory holding land with more debt than it was worth.
"I was worse than broke," he says. "Many people said to just file bankruptcy. I said, No, if I live in tent, I'll never do that. I've got to pay every cent of interest, every bank back."
After study, he found a solution. He started building affordable starter homes himself, no longer depending on others to build on land he developed. That sold off his debt-laden tracts. Ivory Homes was on its way to becoming Utah's largest homebuilder for the past 17 years. It built 6,000 houses and developed 18,000 lots — and again made Ivory wealthy.
With such experience, Ivory sees problems as opportunities. So coming up with the idea of running for Salt Lake County mayor just a month before the election was not just a wild fantasy to him. He made some calls, measured the odds and dived in — quickly. Now he says he is working 18 hours a day, or more, aiming to win. He says lessons he has learned would help the county.
Ivory, 64, was born in Fountain Green, Sanpete County, the youngest of five children. His father worked in a variety of jobs, from shearing sheep to construction. When Ellis was 10, the family moved to Salt Lake County. His father started to build a home there but could not afford to finish it. He did manage to complete the basement, and that is where the family lived for three years. The family returned for a time to Sanpete County — and lived in a home without indoor plumbing.
As a junior back in Salt Lake County, Ivory entered Granite High School, where he had his first taste of politics. His friend Jim Dunn ran for student body president, and Ivory was his running mate for vice president. The campaign was based on "Ivory," the soap; elephants; and the Ivory Tower.
Dunn lost, but Ivory won. Ivory said he thought of resurrecting that old campaign theme in his mayor's race this year. "We were tempted because there is a mess in the county government, and we could clean it up with Ivory," he says. Instead, it opted to focus on the possible need to write him in on ballots as the "write candidate."
Ivory was the first in his family to attend college, at the University of Utah. A Sigma Chi fraternity brother, Roger Boyer, lined him up on a blind date with Katie Stohl. They were married in 1964 and subsequently had seven children.
"At the wedding, he (Boyer) realized for the first time that Katie had a younger sister," Ivory says. Boyer ended up marrying her — making Boyer and Ivory brothers-in-law. They would also become business partners and two of the state's top developers.
Ivory obtained his real estate license the same month he was married and worked with his father. "Dad's construction business totally fizzled, and he filed bankruptcy when I was in high school, so he had no credit. So he got his (real estate) license," Ivory says.
But Ivory made only $550 in commissions in four months working with his dad, while his wife was making twice as much as a secretary. So Ivory jumped at the chance for another taste of politics.
He was hired as a field director for Republican Mitch Melich's gubernatorial campaign. "He lost. If he had won, I'd probably be a worker for the state government to this day," Ivory says.
Ivory finished a degree in political science in June 1965 and returned to his father's small real estate office. Through work there, he became acquainted with attorney Frank Johnson and his brothers, who would become key future partners. Ivory and Boyer also soon formed their own land development company.
A turning point came when Ivory's father received a phone call from a man anxious to sell a 700-acre farm near St. George. The Johnsons bought it, planning to use it as a ranch. Ivory's help was soon sought to help reverse negative cash flow there.
By chance, Ivory asked a real estate office in St. George if it had many requests for building lots.
"She showed me a notebook full of requests," he says. "But she said, 'We don't have any lots. People around here give them to their kids.' That was my whole market research." With that, Ivory, Boyer and the Johnsons soon formed a company called Terracor that developed Bloomington on that farm near St. George — a project that launched the building boom there.
Terracor also developed Stansbury Park in Tooele County and the Pinery near Denver. By 1970, Terracor — with 29-year-old Ivory at its helm — had 350 employees, with offices in Los Angeles, Denver, Kansas City and Chicago. It even had three private jets.
Ivory, however, wanted to slow Terracor's growth, scale back and cut staff — but its board did not. "I left shortly after that," he says, noting that later Terracor "filed bankruptcy, and they were in bankruptcy for 10 years."
Meanwhile, Ivory formed Ivory and Co. in 1971 and enjoyed success with it developing land throughout the '70s. Then, in 1979, he was called as an LDS mission president for three years in England.
A recession hit while he was away. When he returned, his company was heavily in debt on land it could not sell and was losing $2 million a year. So he decided to start building homes himself — not just selling land for them — and offered affordable starter homes with quality, amenities and warranties he says others lacked.
"The economy in the late '80s and '90s finally came back," Ivory says, and business boomed again. He sold his share of the business to his oldest son (who is still making payments on that arrangement), and he retired in 2001.
Ivory says he wanted to do something more important in retirement than just golf (even though he has been serving as president of his LDS stake for five years). By late last month, he had the idea of running for mayor. He talked to others about his idea and decided to see what campaign professionals were available.
Within a week, he was a write-in candidate.
He's pledged to spend $400,000 of his own money. He's vowed not to accept contributions from others. He says he will not take a salary if he wins, nor will he accept a county car.
"Money was at the root of all the problems and scandals with the county. I'm not in it for power or for money," he says.
Ivory says he is making arrangements to avoid conflicts-of-interest if he becomes mayor. For example, he took a leave of absence from his position on the Deseret Morning News board just before he announced his candidacy and said he will resign if elected.
Ivory says being mayor would bring few conflicts with his old Ivory Homes, especially because he sold his interest in it. He says the Planning Commission handles zoning decisions, and it is appointed by the elected County Council, not the mayor. "There are checks and balances," he says.
Of note, records show that Ivory Homes owes $2,077 in unpaid Salt Lake County property taxes on eight parcels, with most of that dating back to 2000 and 2001, about when Ivory left the company. He said that is his former company's problem, not his. "In my management of Ivory Homes, we never lost a piece of property to delinquent taxes," he says.
Ivory has been sued individually or jointly with his businesses 21 times since 1986, which he says is not that many times considering how many homes he has sold. He won the majority, or they were dismissed. Among those that went against him was a suit (later settled) with homeowners in a Murray subdivision where basements were flooded as the water table rose, and a personal injury lawsuit by a man who rode an off-road vehicle into a barbed-wire fence on property owned by Ivory's company.
"I have learned some things that could help the county," he says. For example, he says he knows how to hold down costs.
He once decided his company needed to cut $2,000 in costs on each home it built. It worked with people at all levels to figure "where we could cut $50 here, or $20 there. We had a cost-control meeting every other week to keep on target. We did it. . . . I think that's the sort of thing we may be able to do with the county."
He also says he learned how to attract some of the best builders to work with or for him, even though he knows little about construction himself. "You have to believe in people and delegate," he says. "I know how to make people happy. . . . That principle is going to be important if I am lucky enough to be elected mayor."
So Ivory is touring the county in a bus made to look somewhat like a pencil (to encourage write-in votes if necessary), watching his grandchildren (dressed like pencils) and volunteers handing out pencils, and finds optimism from past experience that he can overcome his late start and problems appearing on the ballot to win.
"A lot of people thought I was crazy," he says. "But we can win. I can make a difference."