Donato built a solid foundation for his son, the future tycoon. During the Depression, he went into business with a friend, building a few houses on Toronto's suburban edges. By the 1950s, business was steady enough that the Brattys moved from a working-class area to the upper-middle-class neighbourhood of Forest Hill. There, in grade school, Rudy hooked up with a group of other future multimillionaires: developer Angelo DelZotto (now chairman of Tridel), investor Lionel Schipper and Four Seasons Hotels founder Isadore Sharp. "We grew up very close, going in and out of each other's homes," says Sharp, whose father was a plasterer-turned-builder from Poland. "The parents knew you almost like a second child."
As a young man, Bratty was a cheerful Type A, athletic and outgoing, with curly black hair. Sharp remembers a road trip the pair took to California, where a man claiming to be a movie agent tried to whisk teenaged Bratty off to Hollywood. "He was practising his singing in the car all the way home," Sharp recalls with a laugh.
Bratty's aggressive business sense showed up early. At 17, he and DelZotto, along with a Bratty cousin, built six houses in the suburb of North York. "We did the shingles on the roof, everything," says Bratty, who trained as a carpenter when he was still a teenager and worked with his dad. "We sold them in one-half hour on a Saturday afternoon, and I never felt so rich in my life." The boys reinvested their $12,000 take and kept going. "We bought 18 lots, then we bought 30 lots," Bratty recalls. "Our fathers were worried sick. They were building two, three houses a year. That's the background we came from-my father started with nothing, and therefore he was very cautious."
Bratty would have been content to keep on building. "But my dad insisted I go to school," he says. So, in 1950, Bratty enrolled in the arts program at the University of Toronto, then went on to Osgoode Law School, paying his way-and then some-as a builder over the summers. When he graduated in 1957, he and a lawyer friend, Emilio Gambin, set up their own firm in Toronto. "I'll bring in the work," Bratty told his partner, "and you do it." Their timing was perfect. Instead of having to hunt down clients, the local community of Italian builders flooded the young firm with more work than it could handle. "We got the next generation," Bratty says. "They were looking for young, Italian lawyers to represent them. And we were fortunate to know many of them through the families. They grew like crazy, and we grew like crazy. And I was always involved, through advice or through participation of some sort, in real estate."
By 1964, when Bratty married a young model named Cathie Sinclair (she was 21, he in his early 30s), he had formed a loose partnership with two of his early clients: Marco Muzzo and Alfredo (Fred) DeGasperis, Italian immigrants who'd arrived in Toronto in the late '50s. For the next four decades, the Bratty-Muzzo-DeGasperis triumvirate would dominate development in Toronto's suburbs, starting with Markham, Vaughan and Brampton. In the early 1970s, before some of these areas had even established major sewer systems, they began buying up thousands of acres of prime land. "They saw it ahead of time," says Don Cousens, a long-time local politician who was Markham's mayor from 1994 to 2006. "They could see future potential there, and they had the resources and commitment to plan 10 or 20 years ahead."
The trio built houses and reinvested the profits, maintaining the pattern Bratty had established as a teenager. The result: They bought land widely and cheaply before other developers came calling, building up both inventory and cash that their competitors had trouble matching. "They were the smart guys," says one former Vaughan politician. "They didn't bank their money. They banked it in land." Today, Bratty says he still owns property he bought 40 or 50 years ago. "There's no doubt that I've always had an appetite for land," he says. "As I always say, it never talks back to you, and only God knows how to make more of it."