David Brierton knew as a teenager he wanted to get into the housing business, and that's what he did.

The Wisconsin native built a Twin Cities-based affordable housing and property management empire at Dominium Co., a company he co-founded in 1972. Over the past 40 years, the company became a quiet but crucial player in the Twin Cities apartment market and one of the largest affordable housing developers in the country.

Brierton, who was known as a disciplined and tenacious businessman, died of pancreatic cancer last week at his home in Wayzata. He was 70.

A native of Waukesha, Wis., Brierton spent three years in the Air Force before attending the University of Wisconsin, where he got his bachelor's degree and real estate MBA. After a fellowship at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a stint at the Indianapolis-based Gene B. Glick Co., Brierton came to the Twin Cities and founded Dominium.

"He said he knew when he was a teenager that he wanted to do something with housing," his wife, Jane Argent-Brierton, said. "He didn't want to be a lawyer. He didn't want to be a doctor."

He started the business about the same time the federal Section 8 housing voucher program was modified to help low-income people pay their rent. He and co-founder Jack Safar quickly mastered the complex financing and bought complete ownership of the company from Hammel Green and Abramson, the architecture firm that had helped start Dominium.

In the 1980s, affordable housing programs changed and Dominium expanded into market-rate housing. But a new low-income tax credit program in 1986 breathed life back into the affordable housing market. As the company grew, Brierton distinguished himself from competitors by being a good manager, making him something of a rarity in real estate, said Paul Sween, one of two managing partners at the firm.

"Dave Brierton was very good at delegating responsibility and authority," Sween said. "He took great satisfaction in growing the company."

Now the company's main thrust is Section 42 housing, which is geared more toward blue-collar workers. The company manages 25,000 apartment units at 226 sites in 22 states and owns about 18,000 of those units. The firm does about $300 million in annual revenue and employs 900 people.

"We're the quiet giant," said Armand Brachman, co-managing partner with Sween.

One of the company's most recent projects is a plan to develop the Pillsbury A Mill into 255 apartments.

"David was a very generous friend and very generous to his friends," Brachman said. "When somebody was in trouble or needed something, he was right there to help out."

An employee at Dominium who was dying of cancer had always wanted to take her children to Disney World, and Brierton paid for them to make the trip. He regularly sent money to a friend who struggled with alcoholism. He was also funny, his wife said, and loved to celebrate.

He was diagnosed with cancer four months ago, but doctors said he could have been suffering from it for as long as 10 years.

"I loved him dearly," his wife said. "I think everyone who knew Dave loved him dearly, in one aspect or another."

Brierton is survived by his wife, six children, two stepchildren and numerous grandchildren. His funeral was Tuesday.

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz