By Mike Henle
In the world of chance, homebuilder Richard Plaster of Signature Homes has ridden a wave for the past 40 years. Known as someone with an uncanny ability to read the market before his competitors, he has known when to back off during an off-year, while also knowing when to put his foot to the floor full-speed ahead for the good times.
Analytical, outspoken and colorful, the 70-year-old Plaster grew up in the 1960s when Vietnam was on the minds of anyone who was a teenager or a young adult. A graduate of the University of California-Berkeley (MBA, Finance and Land Economics), 1969-72; and Stanford University, 1964-69 (psychology), he wrapped up his days as a student and attempted to enter the corporate world of banking.
Only problem was that the banking industry wasn’t ready for Richard Plaster, who could have strolled into the bank wearing clogs while sporting shoulder-length hair. Without missing a beat, the independent and confident young college graduate shook off the rejection and set his sights on the homebuilding career in Southern Nevada.
Never a city that frowns on new visionaries, Las Vegas welcomed Plaster like he was he was one of its own. After getting his start with Ralph Lewis of Lewis Homes, Plaster took to the desert of Southern Nevada like a miner dead-set on finding a vein of gold.
While the banking industry frowned on Plaster’s free spirit, Ralph Lewis of Lewis Homes gladly put the energetic young man to work.
With little money in his pocket, Plaster started a journey that would eventually lead him to a highly-recognized status in the Southern Nevada business climate.
A former carnival barker, Plaster was at home starting from the ground up; seemingly thriving on the new-found employment that has seen visionaries turn the desert into homebuilding works of art.
After leaving Lewis Homes, Plaster formed Signature Homes and spearheaded an operation that resulted in the construction of some 12,000 homes throughout the valley during a timeframe that started in 1979.
Two-thirds of Signature’s homes have been single-family, as Plaster adjusted to the market when necessary for multi-family dwellings.
“He’s one of the best builders Las Vegas has ever seen,” said Dennis Smith, the owner of Homebuilders Research in Southern Nevada. “When you spend time with him, you quickly get the feeling that he’s very intelligent and cerebral. He understands the value of research and data and his ability to evaluate projects is unbelievable.
“No one will ever be able to call Richard typical. He is his own person.”
Long-time Las Vegan Eric Horn was one of Plaster’s competitors.
“I had a lot of respect for him,” said Horn. “He really has a smart way about him. When there were problems with the interest rates, he bought down the rates and sold a bunch of houses.”
Like Plaster, Horn grew to know the stress in the homebuilding business.
“Building homes is engaging,” Horn explained. “You must pay attention the whole time and you must deal with whatever comes around. Richard is very good at handling all of it. He has always had a good business and economic mind.
“In the homebuilding business, you must be able to predict when the ups and downs are coming – and Richard was excellent at that. He was way over my head when it came to understanding data.”
Plaster hasn’t slowed down much.
“I have a piece of land that my dad left to me in California,” he said. “When you attempt to develop land in California, it’s then that you realize how nice it is to do the same thing in Las Vegas. There is no comparison in California, as it relates to regulations.
“Las Vegas is much easier. It was a fun time building in Las Vegas.”
Plaster was president of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association in 1989. He is proud of the fact that it was during his tenure that wood burning fireplaces were banned to address pollution; and long-time builder Barry Becker chaired a group supporting the creation of I-215, which circle the valley.
Plaster turned down a chance to sell Signature Homes in 2006 just as the economy was soaring skyward before the Great Recession swallowed up just about everyone in 2009. In the meantime, his sons, Brian and Morgan, are now leading Signature Homes operations.
Needless to say, the sons have an excellent professor to educate them about the development industry. It’s been a few years since their dad has been in a classroom, but he would be very comfortable standing behind a pulpit instructing a class about most anything, and especially economics and homebuilding.
It’s not hard finding others who have deep respect for Plaster, who shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
“Sold many Signature Homes in my day,” said realtor Doug Sawyer. “Always a class act.”
Added Karen Colbert Harris, “He is a great builder with a great reputation.”
Don Chism, whose family operated Chism Homes starting in the mid-1960s until the mid-1990s, praised Plaster.
“I have known Richard for 35 to 40 years,” said Chism, 66, now retired from real estate. “I have always liked and respected him. He has always been very generous with the fellow homebuilders. He’s also a very good businessman. He’s a deep thinker and probably the smartest guy in the room.
“Richard always knew when to get in and out of the market, which is a reason why he’s one of the survivors of the homebuilding business.”
Former Las Vegas Review-Journal real estate editor Carmel Hopkins said she was always impressed with Plaster.
“He and his wife, Wendy, were front runners in the charitable events in Las Vegas,” Hopkins said. “If it hadn’t been for the Plasters, the Las Vegas philharmonic and the ballet and the opera society would not be where they are now. They are very giving people and always strive to do the best for Las Vegas.”
A native of Guildford, Surrey, UK, Plaster is still involved in development; and has one job currently underway in Southern Nevada. The former president of the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association, he’s also bothered about how badly the crash of the economy hurt homeowners a few years ago.
“It really bothers me that 20 percent of the homeowners are still underwater,” he said, pointing to homes that were purchased for more than they’re worth now. “That’s one of the painful parts of society.”