Started selling signs at 13, took over family's Whiteco Industries a decade later. Turned it into billboard, real estate empire. Sold billboard division to Chancellor Media Corp. for $960 million 1998. "At that price, what the heck?" Sold 100 hotels to Robert Johnson for $1.7 billion 2006. White inherited a small and teetering billboard business from his father and built it into an empire known as White Lodging. His last big play was in 2010 when, during an economic downturn when banks had stopped lending, he financed the construction of Indianapolis' giant JW Marriott hotel almost entirely out of his own pocket. The price came to $400 million. The hotel was considered a linchpin in the city's expanding convention and tourism business, and White was considered a savior and a financial savant. In Northwest Indiana, White is known for having built the 3,400-seat playhouse — the Star Plaza Theatre — in a cornfield in 1979. The move was widely second-guessed at the outset, but he ended up bringing Engelbert Humperdinck to Merrillville — and making money. He also was a major political donor in the state, mainly for Republican candidates and causes. Campaign finance records show White had contributed more than $3.8 million to various candidates and committees since 1998. Indianapolis didn't look so hot in the early 1980s, when White and his son, Bruce, first checked out a Howard Johnson hotel Downtown. Bruce White, however, seems a bit more comfortable on the public stage. The only one of Dean White's four children — Chris, Craig and Cindy — to participate in the business.