Read an Excerpt
DO YOU SINCERELY
WANT TO BE SUPERRICH?
There is pain in getting, care in keeping, and grief in losing riches.
Mapping the Territory
Simply by opening up this copy of How to Be a Billionaire, you have taken an important step forward on the journey to extraordinary wealth. In fact, you are already far ahead of where the self-made billionaires stood when they began their careers. Unlike you, they had no road map. There was no manual that systematically and objectively analyzed the methods of the individuals who preceded them. As you will find when you read about their strategies, many of the greatest accumulators of wealth struggled for years before finding the paths that propelled them to the top of the heap in net worth. No one would seriously suggest that they could have gotten rich by reading alone, but the right sort of book could have saved them a great deal of wasted effort.
Most of the guides to self-enrichment that were available when today's billionaires began their careers were motivational books. This is not to say that they were without value. The self-help classics correctly emphasized that, just as in athletics or the arts, top-level achievement in the business world depended on exceptional internal motivation. A famous example of the genre, Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich, offered role models such as Charles Dickens and Helen Keller, who overcame adversity to achieve greatness. Hill taught his readers how to envision themselves in possession of a vast fortune. Write a clear statement of the amount of money you hope to accumulate, he advised, as well as your time limit for acquiring it. Then read the statement aloud twice a day. In general, the self-enrichment literature provided lots of inspiration, but little in the way of specific fortune-building techniques. One of the more practical books, One Thousand Ways to Make $1,000, was a childhood favorite of Warren Buffett's. It offered suggestions such as creating a business from selling homemade fudge.
To identify the actual tactics employed by the self-made billionaires, today's titans of wealth would have had to compile bits of information from scores of books and articles. In other words, they would have had to undertake the laborious process that How to Be a Billionaire conveniently spares you. If the seekers of wealth had actually gone through the exercise, they would have learned that there was considerably more to the story than hard work and big dreams.
For example, a lot of tough negotiating underlies the great fortunes of the past. This simple fact would not be apparent from the autobiographies of the champion amassers of wealth. Typically, they have portrayed their success as a fair reward for a lifetime of bargaining in good faith. They never needed anything more than a handshake to seal a deal and, if their recollections are to be taken at face value, both sides generally profited. In the real world, many business transactions turn out to be rather one-sided.
Clearly, the less-informed parties who wind up on the short end are not the ones who subsequently write autobiographies recounting their ascent to billionaire status. For that matter, those who do publish their memoirs tend to downplay their interest in wealth altogether. As H. L. Mencken observed, the businessman is the only sort of person who, when he obtains the object of his labors, namely, making a lot of money, tries to make it appear that it was not the object of his labors.
Billionaires' autobiographies have also misled their would-be successors on the relative importance of shrewd financial techniques. To most people, taking full advantage of the tax code or presenting a company to the stock market in the best possible light sounds less heroic than risking one's future on an unproven technology. The founders of the great fortunes understood the popular disdain for pencil pushers. Therefore, they did not emphasize tax and accounting intricacies in the stories they told of their rise to extraordinary wealth. Nevertheless, being financially astute is a must if you hope to become fabulously wealthy, and How to Be a Billionaire will teach you how.
This book is not a treasure trove of previously undisclosed facts about the lives of the billionaires. The surprises are the key aspects of the billionaires' careers that diverge from the images promoted in the financial media. For instance, journalists sell Warren Buffett short by portraying him merely as an investment wizard. In reality, he has done far more than make passive investments in underpriced companies and then wait patiently for the stock market to recognize the hidden value. Anyone who hopes to follow Buffett's model must be willing to take an active role, either as a corporate insider or by pushing companies from outside to exploit their assets more aggressively. It is also important to understand Buffett's reliance, throughout his career, on outright purchases of companies (especially insurance companies), as opposed to becoming a minority shareholder.
Plan of Attack
In setting out to write this book, I wanted to create a manual for future billionaires by analyzing the careers of past and present billionaires. I did not attempt to discuss every billionaire. Forbes lists 268 individuals with net worth of one billion dollars or more in the United States alone, as of 1999.
For readers interested in biographical sketches of the founders of great fortunes, books such as The Wealthy 100 provide a comprehensive treatment. In contrast, I have focused on a short list of individuals whose methods can be generalized into models for the billionaires of tomorrow. To round out the story in places, I have included pointers from a supporting cast of titans to whom I have not devoted full-blown profiles.
I have found that the best vehicle for communicating a broad concept is a highly specific case. For example, an abstract recommendation to keep abreast of changes in the competitive environment sounds like a mere platitude. The immense power of this simple idea becomes clearer when it is illustrated by the multi-billion-dollar insight that led Sam Walton to switch to discount retailing, instead of concentrating his energies on maintaining his position as America's largest independent operator of five-and-ten-cent stores.
To comprehend how Wal-Mart's founder recognized his great opportunity, it is critical to understand the evolution of new retailing formats over the past several decades. Therefore, this profile has more industry-specific information than you will need, unless you intend to seek your fortune in the chain store business. Regardless of the industry you choose, however, it is vital to absorb the broader principle that Walton appliednamely, staying in front of the parade.
Keeping tabs on industry trends is especially important in the high-technology sector, where entire industries rise and fall within astonishingly short periods. I have deliberately omitted from this book the overnight billionaires churned up by the Internet boom. The long-run sustainability of their fortunes is too uncertain at this point. On the other hand, I have traced Bill Gates's path to billions in great depth. By its nature, computer software is an industry that must be examined in considerable detail in order to understand how one competitor achieved a commanding position in several segments. You do not need to master every technical point on the first read-through of the Gates profile, but it is worth returning to for closer scrutiny. After all, high-technology fields probably will generate a disproportionate share of tomorrow's billionaires. It is likely that at least a few of them will come from nontechnical backgrounds, as did Microsoft president Steve Ballmer.
The Road Ahead for Aspiring Billionaires
In the succeeding chapters of How to Be a Billionaire, I study the careers of all-time greats, living and dead, in the field of wealth accumulation. My object is not simply to tell their stories, but to isolate and highlight the methods underlying their extraordinary success. Each chapter is organized around a specific strategy or tactic that turns up repeatedly in reading about self-made billionaires. Extended profiles of 14 titans of wealth appear in chapters devoted to specific methods with which they are respectively associated. These individuals, along with other self-made billionaires whom I examine, generally appear in more than one chapter, because they have pragmatically combined several different methods of building fortunes.
Fundamental strategies constitute the bulk of this book. The study begins with the strategy "Take Monumental Risks," an essential ingredient in every self-made billionaire's success formula. Next, the analysis fo-cuses, in sequence, on "Do Business in a New Way," "Dominate Your Market," "Consolidate an Industry," "Buy Low," "Thrive on Deals," "Outmanage the Competition," "Invest in Political Influence," and "Resist the Unions."
Key principles shared by the self-made billionaires are highlighted throughout. These include:
- Pursue the Money in Ideas
- Rules Are Breakable
- Copying Pays Better Than Innovating
- Keep on Growing
- Hold on to Your Equity
- Hard Work Is Essential
- Use Financial Leverage
- Keep the Back Door Open
- Make Mistakes, Then Learn from Them
- Frugality Pays
- Enjoy the Pursuit
- Develop a Thick Skin
A summary chapter, "Your Turn" (Chapter 12), pulls together the methods illustrated by specific examples throughout the book. It provides a clearer road map than the self-made billionaires had when they began their journeys to unfathomable wealth. Your task is to follow the map to the charmed circle of 10-figure net worth.
Overcome the Levelers
The power of the self-made billionaires' simple-sounding key principles will become clear as you read about specific ways in which they have been applied. You can assimilate the ideas most quickly by keeping in mind the one objective that ties them all together: Overcome the levelers. You must vanquish the mighty economic and social forces that conspire against your rise to massive wealth.
Originally, levelers were people, rather than the inanimate social and economic forces to which the term refers in this book. The Levelers formed a political faction during the English Civil War (1642-1648). They proposed to abolish the nobility's privileges and establish complete religious and political equality.
As their once-radical ideas won general acceptance, the Levelers of old faded from the scene. Today, the levelers against which you must struggle are the Menace of Competition and the Obstacle of Social Conventions. If you succumb to them, you will never rise above a comparatively modest level of wealth.
The Menace of Competition
The most insidious leveler of all is also the supreme virtue of the free enterprise system, namely, competition. As most politicians of both the left and right nowadays concede, competitive markets promote the general welfare. Wherever competition thrives, producers of goods and services vie to increase their profits by reducing their production costs. Reduced costs translate into lower prices to consumers and, ultimately, a higher standard of living as their incomes buy more goods and services.
Consumers' steadily rising standard of living, however, contrasts sharply with another by-product of vigorous competition: stagnation in producers' profit margins. In absolute terms, certainly, profits rise as the economy grows. But competition keeps a lid on rates of profit, measured as a percentage of sales or as return on capital.
When a company finds a new way to lower its costs, the resulting increase in its profit margin usually proves short-lived. Competitors quickly copy the cost-saving technique or devise equally effective economizing measures of their own. With all producers now earning high profits, it is inevitable that one competitor will cut its price to capture a bigger piece of the market. The others will be forced to match the price cut, lest they lose customers. Before long, profit margins will be back to where they were before the cost-saving innovation appeared. Consumers will continue to benefit from reduced prices, but the producers will be right where they started.
Students of economics will recognize this brief narrative as a description of perfect competition. As its name suggests, perfect competition is an idealized state that does not precisely match what is observed in the real world. Nevertheless, perfect competition is depressingly close to reality in most industries. Companies strive mightily, year after year, but never succeed in boosting their profit margins over any sustained period. Competition keeps driving profits toward the minimum rate required to induce investors to risk their capital in equity investments, rather than accept the lower but safer returns of high-quality bonds.
Over a long period of time, entrepreneurs trapped in this system may prosper through general growth in the economy, but they will not become fabulously wealthy. To pull out of the pack, they must earn much higher profits than the economy as a whole is generating. In short, if you hope to become a billionaire, you must overcome the scourge of competition, one way or another.
The most obvious antidote to competition is collusion. Suppose all producers make a solemn pact not to reduce prices as their costs go down. More important, assume they actually honor their solemn pact. By cooperating, they can retain the resulting increased margin between production cost and selling price, instead of passing it along to consumers.
Unfortunately, consumers have long since figured out this stratagem, known in legal parlance as conspiracy in restraint of trade. Unless you are willing to break the law and lucky enough to get away with it, collusion is not a real option. Besides, the preferred method of overcoming the leveling effect of competition has migrated over the years from collusion to monopolization and from monopolization to market dominance.
During the nineteenth century, oil refiner John D. Rockefeller Sr. experimented with collusion as a means of controlling output. He saw a collective benefit for refiners if they could coordinate their production to avoid the recurring episodes of oversupply that vigorous competition inevitably seemed to produce. Periodic gluts decimated everyone's profits, so Rockefeller reasoned that producers would act sensibly and embrace his scheme. In fact, though, they repeatedly broke ranks and exceeded their quotas.
Disgusted with the refiners' obstinate refusal to act in their own self-interest, Rockefeller devised a more efficient way to accomplish the objective he had failed to achieve through collusion. His new solution was to create a monopoly. By acquiring most of the oil refining capacity in the United States, the Standard Oil trust was able to manage supply to its benefit. Unlike monopolists in other industries of his era, Rockefeller did not exploit his position to extract artificially high prices from consumers. Instead, he managed prices with an eye toward reducing the gluts and shortages that formerly made the business so risky. He also kept prices low in order to discourage new competitors from entering the refining industry. In the neat, orderly world that resulted, Rockefeller earned excellent profits through the efficiencies of operating on a vast scale. He further leveraged his market power, and fattened his profit margins, by extracting preferential shipping rates from the railroads. This particular cost saving had to be obtained covertly, through secret rebates to Standard Oil.
For a time, it appeared that Rockefeller and his counterparts in industries such as steel and tobacco had licked the problem of competition. It turned out, however, that the levelers had not abandoned the battlefield. Ambitious politicians capitalized on popular resentment against the economic power that the trusts had amassed. Early in the twentieth century, the U. S. government largely undid the monopolists' work by stepping up enforcement of the antitrust laws. Most sectors of the economy were subjected once again to the rigors of genuine competition.
During the early years of the New Deal (1933-1935), major industries enjoyed a brief respite. In an effort to pull the country out of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt encouraged the formation of cartels to boost prices and raise corporate profits. The United States Supreme Court, however, eventually ruled the scheme illegal.
Today, there are essentially two strategies available to companies for overcoming the leveling effect of competition. One alternative is to fix prices and hope not to get apprehended by the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department. The other choice is to obtain unusual pricing power while still playing by the rules. This gambit in turn has several variants:
Lawful Sources of Pricing Power
1. Brand identity.
2. Patent protection.
3. Dominant market share.
4. Sustainable cost advantage.
The Obstacle of Social Conventions
Sam Walton's reputation for hard bargaining with vendors highlights a second leveler that aspiring billionaires must defeat. Society runs not only according to laws, but also according to certain conventions of behavior. Individuals who unfailingly abide by these informal rules are unlikely to amass billion-dollar fortunes. In Walton's case, the key to obtaining lower costs was a willingness to violate the retailing industry norm of cordial relations with vendors. Wal-Mart deviated even further from convention when it tried to go around manufacturers' representatives to deal directly with manufacturers.
Carl Icahn has reached the billionaires' ranks through hostile takeovers, a highly controversial activity. On the one hand, corporate raiders are popular among the shareholders who ride their coattails. Also in the raiders' cheering section are a number of laissez-faire economists who argue that by dislodging inefficient managers, the takeover artists benefit the general economy. At the same time, takeover artists arouse the ire of corporate managers who face ouster as control of their companies changes hands. One of Icahn's target companies filed litigation alleging that he was engaged in a "sophisticated scheme of corporate piracy." Another denounced him as "one of the greediest men on earth." Many editorial writers and screenwriters likewise portray corporate raiders in a highly unfavorable light.
Imperviousness to such criticism has been a key to Icahn's success. Although by some accounts he wants to be well-liked, making pals is hardly the central focus of his business activity. "If you want a friend on Wall Street," he advises, "get a dog." Icahn revels in his role as a brutally tough negotiator, saying:
At times I guess I would plead guilty to being a bully if you call a bully a guy who says, "Look, I have your stock and I'm going to do this, and I'm coming in, so why don't you sell me the company?"
In a classic confrontation over Icahn's hostile bid for Phillips Petroleum, Morgan Stanley investment banker Joe Fogg declared the proposal preposterous. "What the hell do you know about the oil business?" he demanded to know. "You don't understand, Joe," Icahn calmly replied. "I'm not here for an interview."
As an aspiring billionaire, you must reconcile yourself to the fact that winning a popularity contest and climbing to the upper echelons of the Forbes 400 are radically different undertakings. If Warren Buffett had set out to make some new friends, he would not have acquired the week-day- only Buffalo Evening News and launched a Sunday edition. That action broke up a comfortable modus vivendi with the News's rival paper, the Buffalo Courier-Express. For many years, the Courier-Express had survived on the strength of its Sunday monopoly, while the News dominated the circulation battle during the balance of the week. The gentlemen's agreement shielded both papers from ruinous competition and prevented Buffalo from devolving into a one-newspaper town. On the other hand, the informal arrangement afforded Buffett the opportunity to enhance the value of his investment by converting the News into a seven-day-a-week paper. When the Courier-Express ceased publishing, leaving the News in a monopoly position, Buffett could have endeared himself to the paper's reporters and editors by including them in the News's profit-sharing plan. Instead, he rebuffed their bid by saying that nothing anyone did in the newsroom could affect profits. Notwithstanding his reputation for geniality, Buffett has stood resolute in the face of personal criticism when money was at stake.
Another surefire way to influence people without winning friends is to achieve a dominant market share. From 1902 to 1905, John D. Rockefeller Sr. had to endure a lengthy series of articles in McClure's magazine exposing and condemning every significant action undertaken by the Standard Oil Company since its founding. The author, Ida Tarbell, ventured that over the preceding 30 years, Rockefeller had never run a fair race with a competitor. His pious, churchgoing image, she charged, was nothing but a predatory businessman's hypocritical facade. The index of Ron Chernow's 1998 Rockefeller biography, Titan, contains seven entries under the heading, "Rockefeller, John D., Sr.: death threats against." Nine decades later, resentment of Microsoft's dominant market position has spawned web sites devoted exclusively to vilifying Bill Gates.
One way or another, if you succeed in amassing a billion-dollar fortune, you will also succeed in making some folks unhappy. If nothing else, you will upset the sort of people who cannot abide another person's success. You will certainly offend individuals who regard outstanding performance in the area of making money as inherently inferior to other accomplishments, such as taking first place in an athletic contest or getting elected to public office.
In a strictly logical sense, that view seems difficult to support. Business, sports, and politics are all intensely competitive fields. Making a billion dollars is not intrinsically less of an achievement than, say, a victory in a major tennis tournament or winning a race for the Senate. Nevertheless, there will always be people who flatter themselves by looking down on "mere" fortune builders.
Provided you have lived up to your own ethical standards, there is little to do but bear the critics' barbs with as much grace as possible. Do not waste energy on the leveling tones of latter-day socialists who consider it a crime to get rich. Ignore, as well, the envious types who call you greedy. As the saying goes, "It doesn't matter what people call you unless they call you pigeon pie and eat you up."
The Paths Not Taken by Billionaires
Having mentally armed yourself against the levelers, you must now take care to avoid certain blind alleys of wealth accumulation. The experiences of past and present self-made billionaires not only reveal the most remunerative activities, but also, if studied properly, the activities that almost certainly will not produce billion-dollar fortunes. From a quick examination of the Forbes 400 list of America's richest people, you can learn how individuals made the list and how they did not.
Forbes lists the primary source of wealth of its elite group, all of whom possess fortunes of $500 million or more. "Inheritance" appears frequently, along with a wide array of companies and industries. "Salary" does not appear at all. This is a not very subtle clue that owning a business is a more likely route to billions than being an employee. Also conspicuous by its absence from the list is "Playing the stock market."
Speculating in securities is a fascinating pastime, much like betting on horses or handicapping the Academy Awards. Passive investing has not landed a single individual on the current list of billionaires, however. If you entertain hopes of making the Forbes 400 list by shrewdly managing your personal portfolio, the record strongly suggests that you should abandon the notion and get onto a more productive track. Even if you match the record of the most successful money managers, beating the market averages by a few percentage points annually, you are not likely to parlay a modest stake into a billion dollars during your lifetime.
By way of illustration, the mean annual rate of return on the Standard & Poor's 500 Index over the period 1926-1998 was 13.2 percent. You will qualify for the portfolio managers' hall of fame if you succeed in beating the market over an extended period by three percentage points a year, net of commissions and taxes. At that rate of return (16.2 percent), if you begin with an investment of $100,000, you will have accumulated only $182 million after 50 years of patient labor. On the other hand, suppose that, like the vast majority of money managers, you do no better than match the market's performance over the long run. In that case, your accumulation after half a century will be a much more modest $49 million.
On the positive side, these figures demonstrate the phenomenal power of patiently compounding your returns over a lengthy period. Keeping in mind the principle that the first billion is the hardest, investing your fortune for the long run can enable you to pass on more money to your heirs or favorite philanthropies. The accumulation over five decades also shows, however, that if you hope to be a billionaire before you retire, speculating on stocks is the wrong vehicle.
At this point, you may be asking, "Can it really be true that nobody has made a billion dollars purely by playing the stock market?" After all, Forbes lists "Investments" as the primary source of wealth of seven of the wealthiest Americans in the billion-dollars-and-up category. A look at the profiles that Forbes also provides, however, makes it clear that these individuals did not make their fortunes primarily by spotting attractive stocks to put into their personal portfolios. Among the other activities that the "investment" specialists have engaged in over the years are:
- Starting a charter airline and selling it for a $104 million profit.
- Building the world's biggest hotel.
- Assembling a broadcasting empire and selling it for a $3.3 billion gain.
- Booting out management of Columbia/ HCA following an investigation of alleged Medicare fraud.
- Expanding a single drugstore into a chain and selling it for $50 million.
- Engaging in hostile takeovers.
- Restoring a foundering bank to health and merging it to form NationsBank.
In short, Forbes's definition of an investment, for purposes of compiling its wealthiest-Americans list, is not buying a stock and waiting for it to go up. Rather, the term means taking a substantial stake in a company and actively influencing its direction. Active influence may even include owning the business outright and running it. Indeed, John Kluge, one member of the billionaires' club whom Forbes characterizes as having made his fortune primarily in investments, told the magazine: "I'm an operator, not an investor."
Even the man commonly (and with considerable justice) described as the world's greatest investor, Warren Buffett, ranks among the billionaires largely because of his corporate activism, rather than his passive investing. Forbes appropriately lists Buffett's primary source of wealth not as investments, but as the company he heads, Berkshire Hathaway. Contrary to a common misperception, Berkshire Hathaway is not for all intents and purposes a closed-end mutual fund managed by Buffett. While the Sage of Omaha takes no direct role in the management of Berkshire Hathaway's operating companies, he sets broad strategies and closely monitors each unit's managers.
Other billionaires who are identified with securities investing likewise made their money by means other than finding cheap stocks and waiting for the world to recognize their value. For example, Carl Icahn has not become fabulously wealthy by passively investing in companies he considers undervalued. His technique is far better described as "attempting to control the destinies of the companies in question." That phrase appeared in a memorandum that Icahn and his associate, Alfred Kingsley, distributed in 1975 in connection with their first investment partnership. The specific tactics they envisioned represented a blueprint for their later coups:Approaches to Profiting from a Corporate Control Battle
- Attempt to convince management to liquidate the company or sell it to a "white knight" (a friendly acquirer).
- Wage a proxy battle.
- Launch a tender offer.
- Sell back the acquired stock position to the company.
No one can realistically hope to replicate Icahn's phenomenal success by imitating only the first half of his method, namely, correctly identifying the companies that are trading below their potential value.
Similarly, picking good stocks alone has not been the road to fabulous wealth for George Soros or Julian Robertson, two other individuals for whom Forbes lists investments as the primary source of wealth. Highly talented investors to be sure, Soros and Robertson have surpassed the billion-dollar mark in net worth by founding hedge funds. These limited partnerships give the managers sizable overrides on the trading profits they produce for their investors. Losses are not shared in the same manner, although the popularity of the Soros and Robertson funds shows that investors are not dissatisfied with the arrangement. Finally, Ned Johnson and Abigail Johnson of Fidelity Investments and Fayez Sarofim derive their wealth largely from ownership of investment firms, rather than successful investments in their personal portfolios.
The Better Mousetrap Fallacy
A careful look at the sources of history's greatest fortunes not only exposes the futility of trying to speculate your way to billions, but also refutes a common misconception regarding the connection between original ideas and great wealth. It is true that new ideas have given birth to many immense fortunes, but the original thinkers have not generally been the ones who made the fortunes. A more dependable strategy is to learn how to make money from ideas, and then be prepared to capitalize on an original notion dreamed up by someone who is more skilled at that sort of thing.
If the foregoing seems lacking in idealism, consider the hard fact that How to Be a Billionaire is not a book about Gary Kildall. Neither does it dwell on "Crazy Ted" Judah, Edwin Drake, or Leonidas Merrittall superb idea men. It is imperative to understand how it came to pass that this book is about Bill Gates, Leland Stanford, and John D. Rockefeller Sr., among others.
The dominant operating system for personal computers is DOS (disk operating system). The cornerstone of Microsoft's spectacular success, it is descended from a product developed by Gary Kildall, founder of Digital Research. In the 1970s, Kildall's CP/M (control program for microprocessors) was the premier operating system for microcomputers. In fact, when IBM decided to get into the personal computer business, Microsoft's Bill Gates advised the company to license CP/M. Kildall, however, held out for more than the flat $200,000 fee that IBM was willing to pay. Microsoft then stepped into the breach, snapping up the rights to a somewhat more advanced operating system developed on the foundation of CP/M. Gates licensed DOS to IBM for a paltry $50,000, shrewdly reckoning that he could generate far greater profits from licenses to other computer makers and software developers. Within a short time, Digital Research went into decline, finally getting folded into Novell in 1991. Three years later, Gary Kildall died at the age of 52 from head injuries sustained in a barroom brawl. Bill Gates went on to become the richest man in the world.
The stories of other creative thinkers had less gruesome endings. All had similar plots, however. In each case, somebody amassed a fortune of $1 billion or more, but it was never the person who generated the original idea.
Theodore "Crazy Ted" Judah was an eccentric engineer who devised a plan to build a railroad across the treacherous Sierra Nevada mountain range. He obtained financial backing from four storekeepers with almost no experience in railroads, and in 1863 the Central Pacific began laying track eastward from Sacramento. Six years later, the Central Pacific joined the Union Pacific, which had been building westward from Omaha, to form the first transcontinental rail line. By then, however, Judah had been squeezed out of the venture. Unable to abide his backers' bribing of government officials, he died nearly penniless. Each of the merchants Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Potter Huntington, and Leland Stanfordbecame billionaires, in today's dollars.
Edwin Drake, a former railroad conductor, conceived the idea of adapting a drilling method used to create salt wells to extract oil in western Pennsylvania. A few years earlier, George Bissell had come up with the equally brilliant notion that the Pennsylvania rock oil could be refined into a higher-quality illuminant than the coal oil product then in use. Drake's 1859 breakthrough of producing commercial quantities of oil gave birth to the petroleum industry. It was John D. Rockefeller Sr., however, who figured out that the real money (at least in the industry's initial stage), was in refining, rather than production. Monopolistic control of the refining business enabled Rockefeller to amass, by one measure (percentage of gross national product), a fortune never equaled before or since. Among the charitable activities of one of Rockefeller's chief associates at Standard Oil Company, Henry H. Rogers, was assistance to Edwin Drake's impoverished widow.
Finally, Leonidas Merritt and several of his relatives boldly conceived a plan to exploit the Mesabi Range, a vast iron ore vein in northern Minnesota. Borrowing aggressively, the backwoods operators acquired huge tracts of land and commenced construction of a rail line to transport the ore to Lake Superior. Then came the Panic of 1893. Iron prices plummeted and the financially overextended Merritts turned to John D. Rockefeller Sr. for a cash infusion. Rockefeller had no previous experience in the iron business, but he understood very well from his years in the oil business how to make profits on distressed properties. As iron prices continued to fall, the Merritts were eventually obliged to surrender complete ownership of the company to him. Rockefeller's fling with the iron ore business lasted much longer than he had expected, but he had the financial wherewithal to ride out the slump. One chunk of stock that he bought from the Merritts for $900,000 in 1894 was worth $9 million by 1901. For $525,000, Rockefeller settled the Merritts' legal claims that he had dealt unfairly with them. Leonidas Merritt got another chance to tell his story when Congress investigated the affair in 1912, but apparently suffered a mental breakdown and was unable to provide a coherent account.
The moral of these stories, and countless others like them, is very different from the lesson that Napoleon Hill drew from studying the careers of the wealthy. Hill advised the readers of Think and Grow Rich to emulate the dreamers, such as Thomas Edison, Wilbur and Orville Wright, and Guglielmo Marconi, who refused to give up on ideas that others considered crazy. In light of the contrasting experiences of Merritt and Rockefeller, however, Hill's stress on the importance of persistence was probably more on the mark than his extolling of originality.
Certainly, not every brilliant inventor winds up destitute. Edison, for example, was competent at translating ideas (including the incandescent lightbulb, the phonograph, and motion pictures) into money. At his death in 1931, his fortune was estimated at around $12 million. That was a substantial sum for the time, but only one-fifth as great as the fortune of Henry Phipps, who died one year earlier. Phipps, a partner in Andrew Carnegie's steel business, is not remembered for inventing anything.
It may be true that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. The throng may consist, however, of financiers hoping to capture the profits of your invention for themselves. Looking at the bright side, you need not feel that a lack of original ideas precludes you from ever becoming a billionaire. Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, prided himself on having appropriated nearly all of his good ideas from his competitors. More than any of the other retailing magnates, however, Walton thoroughly understood how to turn ideas into dollars.
The Right Stuff
How to Be a Billionaire focuses on identifying keys to the success of the wealthiest self-made individuals, rather than on uncovering tidbits to titillate, as celebrity biographies do. My objective is to separate the bona fide moneymaking ideas from the media fluff. In short, you should not read this book to learn about Howard Hughes's romantic liaisons and eccentricities, even though I have included a few colorful aspects of the self-made billionaires' lives.
Neither is this book an attempt to psychoanalyze the founders of great fortunes, however interesting a separate project that might be. My objective, after all, is to tell you how you can create your own great fortune. It would help you little to discover that your relationship with your parents or your childhood experiences failed to match some standard billionaire's profile. More to the point are the parts of the equation you can controlnamely, the habits and strategies that you can borrow from others who have excelled in amassing wealth.
By the same token, when you undertake something as ambitious as creating a huge fortune, a bit of self-assessment is in order. Armed with the knowledge that self-made billionaires display a tendency toward certain character traits, you can strive to strengthen those traits in your own personality. Suppose, for example, you discover that you are substantially more risk-averse than the billionaires as a group. The defeatist's option is to ascribe differences in tolerance for risk entirely to genetics and upbringing, which implies that you have no hope of changing your attitude. The more productive course is to proceed on the assumption that your personality is at least partially malleable. By the same token, you can identify traits that are strong suits for you and that most self-made billionaires also display. While you work on correcting shortcomings that you perceive in your own makeup, you can meanwhile fashion a strategy that plays to your strengths. Given your particular personality and interests, certain billionaires profiled in subsequent chapters probably will serve you better as role models than others.
A Taste for Gambling
On the specific issue of risk, the billionaires' interest in card games, particularly poker, is striking. During his cotton-planting days, before entering the oil business, H. L. Hunt was compelled to support his family with his poker winnings after losing two consecutive crops to floods. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, John Kluge's obsession with the game attracted unwelcome attention from the administration. By graduation in 1937, Kluge had accumulated $7,000 in winnings, equivalent to $80,000 in 1999 purchasing power.
Bill Gates, too, devoted a great deal of his time at college to playing poker before dropping out of Harvard. Carl Icahn raised his first investment stake by clearing $4,000 playing poker during six months of active duty in the United States Army, a stint that followed his graduation from Princeton. Similarly, poker winnings helped to bankroll Kirk Kerkorian's launch of a charter airline that he ultimately parlayed into a billion-dollar fortune. Warren Buffett's fraternity brothers at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania remember him chiefly for playing bridge. He became proficient enough to play on the Corporate America team, a group of chief executive officers that took on such opponents as a team composed of members of the British Parliament.
It requires no great conceptual powers to perceive the connection between prowess at the card table and success in financial dealings. Both situations involve uncertainties and place a premium on careful calculation of the odds. Outright recklessness will not defeat skilled opponents over many hands or over many deals. Neither, however, will victory come from interminable analysis, unaccompanied by a willingness to take a leap of faith.
From Brains to Billions
The self-made billionaires' demonstrated ability to gauge the odds gives lie to the belief in some quarters that the accumulation of wealth requires cunning but not intelligence. On the face of it, the Ivy League credentials of Buffett, Gates, Icahn, and Kluge, noted just above, suggest that some of the greatest fortune builders are in fact fairly cerebral. Laurence Tisch's stint at Harvard Law School, before dropping out to help in his family's business, offers similar evidence.
Lest anyone imagine that these individuals won admission to top schools on the strength of family connections and then earned gentlemen's Cs, there are plenty of other intellectual achievements to point to among the billionaires. Buffett earned the only A+ ever awarded by Benjamin Graham, the fabled father of securities analysis and his instructor at Columbia Business School. Bill Gates scored a perfect 800 on the mathematics portion of his Scholastic Aptitude Test and reportedly ranked among the top 10 high school math students in a nationwide competition. Philosophy major Carl Icahn took first place in the annual judging of Princeton senior theses. His topic was "The Problem of Formulating an Adequate Explication of the Empirical Criterion of Meaning." You may have to take his word for it, but the famed corporate raider claims, "In a funny way, studying twentieth-century philosophy trains your mind for takeovers."
Certainly, a high level of academic achievement is not a prerequisite for making a billion dollars. Wayne Huizenga dropped out of college, Kirk Kerkorian quit school after eighth grade, and H. L. Hunt received only home schooling. All three entered distinctly proletarian occupations, ranging from garbage hauler to prizefighter to mule skinner. Their career paths by no means denoted lack of native intelligence, however. Hunt, for example, was a gifted child who learned to read at three and reputedly had a photographic memory. His formal education was limited not by his scholastic aptitude, but by the need to help out on his family's cattle farm. At the age of 19, he enrolled in Valparaiso University in Indiana, despite having completed only elementary school, but left after one year.
Horatio Alger, Revised
The career paths of Huizenga, Kerkorian, and Hunt shed light on another aspect of the self-made billionaires' profile. It would no doubt please boosters of the American free enterprise system if the three individuals' stints as common laborers reflected their rise from impoverished childhoods. In reality, there are not many bona fide rags-to-riches stories among the self-made billionaires. Without denigrating their achievements in any way, it is fair to say that they came primarily from middle-class backgrounds, typically gaining familiarity with the business world from their fathers' experiences. Rather than pulling themselves up by their bootstraps from poverty, they extended the success of previous generations. To some extent, perhaps, they were motivated by memories of business reverses that their fathers suffered.
Wayne Huizenga's grandfather emigrated to the United States from the Netherlands. He started life in the New World as a laborer but soon established his own waste hauling business. His son, Harry, became a home builder. Vagaries of the real estate market caused fluctuations in the family's circumstances, but the Huizengas were prosperous enough to send Wayne to a private school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Kerkorian's father, an immigrant from Armenia, could barely read or write but he managed to borrow the capital to amalgamate several properties into a thousand-acre farm in California's San Joaquin Valley. He regarded himself as a gentleman farmer, was reckoned a millionaire in some quarters, and owned an expensive Stutz Bearcat car. Hard times followed the 1921 recession. The Kerkorians forfeited their land and went to Los Angeles, where they moved frequently to stay a step ahead of the rent collector. Within two years, however, Ahron Kerkorian had restored his family's finances by becoming a produce dealer.
Hunt's father, a Confederate war veteran, started out with an 80- acre farm in Illinois, but expanded his business by acting as a middleman for other farmers. By branching out into agriculture futures in Chicago, he accumulated 500 acres and opened a bank. No economic necessity forced Hunt to leave home at 16 and work variously as a cowboy, as a lumberjack, and on a railroad gang. Rather, he preferred not to clerk in his father's bank. A few years later, a $5,000 inheritance from his father was sufficient, in a period of low land prices, for Hunt to establish himself as a cotton farmer.
The families of Warren Buffett, Ross Perot, Laurence Tisch, and Sam Walton all endured hardships during the Depression, but they were not among the one-third of the United States populace that Franklin Roosevelt described as ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished. Shortly after Warren Buffett was born, his father, Howard, lost his job as a securities salesman when the bank that employed him went under, taking his savings with it. Times got so tight that Buffett's mother gave up attending her church circle because she could not afford 29 cents to buy a pound of coffee. By the time Buffett entered school, however, his father had achieved reasonable success with the brokerage firm that he founded. Howard Buffett later served in the United States Congress, making his son anything but a marginal member of society who would have to compensate by getting rich. In a similar vein, Ross Perot's father did well enough in the cotton brokering and cattle trading businesses to enable the family to acquire a reputation for generosity to others hit hard by the economic troubles of the 1930s. A chain of clothing stores owned by Laurence Tisch's father ran into trouble but avoided bankruptcy. Al Tisch also owned a manufacturer of boys' clothing, which remained profitable despite the hard times. "There was never a period that I remember a hardship in the family," Laurence later recalled. Sam Walton's father went bust in the insurance and mortgage business at the beginning of the Depression, but soon got a job handling repossessions for his half-brother's mortgage company. Walton reported that his father once swapped his wristwatch for a hog in order to put some meat on the table, but the family avoided severe deprivations. The senior Walton eventually became a millionaire through his land holdings.
John Kluge, whose father died before the Depression, worked for a time on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company, then attended Columbia University on scholarship. Carl Icahn, born near the end of the Depression, enjoyed a middle-class upbringing in Queens, New York. His socialist-leaning father worked as a cantor and did not aspire to great wealth. Carl nevertheless acquired a yearning for the good life from an uncle who was a successful businessman. Bill Gates, who was born long after the Depression, grew up under fairly affluent circumstances as the son of a prominent Seattle lawyer. Richard Branson, too, is the son of a lawyer, as well as the grandson of a judge on the United Kingdom's High Court. He grew up in an affluent London suburb, although his mother, a former ballet instructor, glider pilot, and flight attendant, had to maintain a tight household budget to sustain the family's lifestyle. Phil Anschutz's father was an oil wildcatter, who borrowed aggressively and experienced wide swings in fortune as a result. J. Paul Getty's father, too, was an oilman, successful enough to allow his son to grow up as something of a playboy.
In summary, the common thread of self-made billionaires' lives is not a desire to rise from poverty. For some of the great wealth gatherers, periods of family financial reversal may have created an intense desire for financial security. This is a thirst that no sum of money can completely extinguish.
Fathers and Sons
The more frequent, although not universal, theme in the self-made billionaires' early lives is a business-oriented father as a role model. Biographers particularly characterize Buffett and Perot as idolizing their fathers. Kerkorian has described his father as the toughest man he ever knew. He was "a big, rough man who didn't take anything from anybody," according to a childhood acquaintance of Kirk's. A longtime employee of Sam Walton's father described him in similar, albeit cruder, terms.
John D. Rockefeller Sr. was a conspicuous exception to the rule of a business-oriented father as role model. William Avery Rockefeller was a charlatan who peddled patent medicine and passed himself off as a doctor. He adopted various aliases, contracted a bigamous marriage, and generally became an embarrassment to his successful son. Even in this unusual case, however, the father managed to set a bit of a positive example, running a successful lumber business for a time and impressing John as a negotiator and manager of people.
The influence of the more conventional fathers probably played some part in the self-made billionaires' early enthusiasm for business enterprises.
As youths, for example, Warren Buffett, Ross Perot, and Sam Walton all injected extraordinary energy into the commonplace part-time job of delivering newspapers. Buffett, for instance, put together a mammoth route of 500 customers. He also obtained a route covering the same territory for the Washington Post's morning rival, the Times-Herald. If a customer canceled one paper in favor of the other, Buffett lost no business.
Where Are the Women?
Perhaps the importance of father-son relationships also explains, in part, the paucity of women among the self-made billionaires. In the 1998 Forbes 400 list, the women in the billion-dollars-and-up category are all associated with family fortunes. Male relatives founded all of the relevant businesses, except for the Hallmark Cards operation that vaulted the Hall family to the billion-dollar ranks.
To be sure, several of the billionaire women identified by Forbes have been actively involved in the businesses that produced their fortunes. They include Leona Helmsley (hotels), Abigail Johnson (Fidelity Investments), Martha Ingram (assorted distribution businesses), and Sydell Miller (hair products). Alice Walton played a role in several banks controlled by her family, although she had little involvement in the Wal-Mart retailing chain.
Early in 1999, moreover, Muriel Siebert's net worth edged above $1 billion when shares of Siebert Financial Corporation skyrocketed from $11 to $49.50. Investors bid up the price of Siebert Financial, the holding company for Siebert's brokerage house, during a boom in demand for shares of online trading companies. The sustainability of Siebert's billion-dollar fortune remains an open question. She owned 92 percent of the shares, meaning that the paper value of her holdings was determined by a small float of stock in a red-hot market for Internet-related equities. A comparatively modest volume of selling could sharply reduce the aggregate value of all Siebert Financial shares.
While the longevity of her billionaire status remains to be seen, nobody can deny that Siebert has achieved remarkable things with the same sort of tenacity observed in other self-made billionaires. In 1967, she became the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, a feat that required considerable perseverance. She was turned down by nine of the first 10 men she asked to be her sponsor. Then, the exchange imposed a new requirement, demanding that she obtain a letter from a bank confirming that it would lend her $300,000 to buy a seat at the then near-record price of $445,000. The banks, on the other hand, declined to provide such a letter until the exchange agreed to admit her. Siebert eventually overcame this chicken-and-egg predicament, then went on to become the first woman to head a New York Stock Exchange member firm. She later served as superintendent of the New York State Banking Department before resuming operating control of Siebert Financial.
With Muriel Siebert demonstrating that there is no inherent barrier to women surpassing the billion-dollar mark, it seems likely that others will replicate her success in the future. As career options for women have widened in general, successful businessmen and business-women have become role models for daughters who aspire to become billionaires. Perhaps even now the Girl Scouts are playing the critically important role for future billionaires that the Boy Scouts played in the lifelong success of Ross Perot, Sam Walton, and, to a lesser extent, Bill Gates. Perot made Eagle Scout in 16 months, a feat that typically takes three to five years and which fewer than 1 percent of Scouts achieve. Walton was the youngest Missourian up to his time to reach the Eagle ranking.
Enjoy the Pursuit
Whatever the mix of tomorrow's billionairesby gender, by previous ex-perience in newspaper deliveries and scouting, and so forthone char-acteristic probably will remain a constant: joy in the pursuit of wealth. Winning itself, rather than the prize, is the source of gratification that drives the great amassers of wealth to the extraordinarily select circle defined by a 10-figure net worth.
While it would be overstating the case to describe the self-made billionaires as indifferent to the things money can buy, many of them are notable for the simplicity of their lifestyles. Sam Walton and Warren Buffett declined to relocate to lavish estates as their wealth soared. Ross Perot and Phil Anschutz seem content to drive modestly priced cars and do not require the latest models. Others have shown less indifference to luxuries, yet have continued building their wealth beyond the level required to satisfy their material desires. Not content to rest on the laurels of the legendary success of Electronic Data Systems, Ross Perot started another company from scratch and reaped more than $2 billion when Perot Systems went public. Wayne Huizenga performed a comparable feat by heaping Blockbuster Entertainment's success on top of Waste Management's, then undertook to revolutionize the business of selling automobiles. Phil Anschutz, similarly, topped his previous achievements in the oil and railroad businesses when he entered an entirely new field to found Qwest Communications. By and large, the individuals who succeed in clearing a cool billion yearn to outdo themselves, rather than merely preserve what they have made.
Kirk Kerkorian once explained that when he started out in business, he aimed at accumulating $100,000. Later on, he figured he would have it made when he reached a million dollars. After he had passed the $100 million mark, he was asked what continued to motivate him. "Now it isn't the money," he explained, fresh from a successful tender offer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stock. Thirty years later, having exceeded the billion-dollar hurdle, the octogenarian Kerkorian was still doing deals. For him, the mere possession of wealth never replaced the thrill of the pursuit.
Be Prepared to Pay the Price
If you are ready to begin putting a plan for making a billion dollars into action, you are once again ahead of most self-made billionaires at similar stages of their quest for wealth. Few if any set out with the explicit objective of amassing a billion dollars of net worth, even though they all had some notion of becoming wealthy. In the early days of Microsoft, for example, Bill Gates vehemently disputed the possibility of a computer software company ever growing to the scale necessary to put its owners into that category.
Rest assured, the principles explained in the following pages will help you even if you have set your sights somewhat lower than the 10- figure level. Make no mistake about it, though: You will not reach even the hundred-million-dollar level without a clear focus and single-minded commitment. One of the greatest benefits of reading this book may be a fuller understanding of the wear and tear you and your family will sustain if you aim for the very top tier of the individual net worth rankings.
Wayne Huizenga devoted 20-hour days to his original waste-hauling business. In the course of consolidating scores of similar operations into Waste Management, he regularly went out of town from Sunday evening to Friday evening to negotiate acquisitions. Years later, he remarked with regret:
I never saw my kids play Little League ball. The only play I ever saw was when our daughter Pam one time was in a play. I missed all that stuff with all the kids. That's not good and I wouldn't advise anyone to put that much into it.
In fact, though, most of the billionaires did put that much into it, with other family members frequently bearing the brunt. John D. Rockefeller Sr., for example, worked on the morning and afternoon of his wedding day, rather than deviate from his routine. H. L. Hunt was so immersed in his work that until he entered the hospital two months before his death at 85, he continued to go to his office six days a week. In the final days, he went in by wheelchair.
To be sure, Phil Anschutz, Laurence Tisch, Ross Perot, and Sam Walton have proven that building a stupendous fortune is not incompatible with a long, stable marriage. Moreover, the high rate of divorce in society at large demonstrates that refraining from making a billion dollars is no guarantee of marital bliss. It is fair to say, however, that most families would be severely stressed by the single-minded devotion to business exhibited by most of the titans of wealth.
If you believe that you can manage the family strain, as well as the personal attacks that becoming a billionaire may entail, by all means proceed to Chapter 2. It addresses the question, "How Important Is Choosing an Industry?" Resolving the issues raised in the chapter is an important first step in charting your path toward the charmed circle of billionaires.