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All the Money in the World

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How the Forbes 400 Make--and Spend--Their Fortunes

Written by Peter W. BernsteinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Peter W. Bernstein and Annalyn SwanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Annalyn Swan


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On Sale: December 02, 2008
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-26770-2
Published by : Vintage Knopf

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From Wall Street to the West Coast, from blue-collar billionaires to blue-blood fortunes, from the Google guys to hedge-fund honchos, All the Money in the World gives us the lowdown on today richest Americans. Veteran journalists Peter W. Bernstein and Annalyn Swan delve into who made and lost the most money in the past twenty-five years, the fields and industries that have produced the greatest wealth, the biggest risk takers, the most competitive players, the most wasteful family feuds, the trophy wives, the most conspicuous consumers, the biggest art collectors, and the most and least generous philanthropists.

Incorporating exclusive, never-before-published data from Forbes magazine, All the Money in the World is a vastly entertaining, behind-the-scenes look at today's Big Rich.


Chapter 1

Education, Intelligence, Drive

The notion of a good education as a ticket to the good life is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Studies show over and over that there’s a strong correlation between schooling and future earnings. It’s a central tenet of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s 108th mayor, who has taken on the city’s failing education system with gusto. “Nothing is more important than education,” says Bloomberg, “so you’re seeing the better educated getting the greater percentage of the wealth. And education is only going to become more important as we get into a more and more complex world.”

If this is so, how did David Murdock, son of a traveling salesman and a high-school dropout, amass a net worth of more than $4 billion in real-estate development and the food business? What transformed onetime welfare recipient Tim Blixseth, a high-school grad, into a billionaire timber lord?

And what turned eighteen-year-old Thomas Flatley, who left Ireland with $32 in his pocket and no advanced education, into a $1.3 billion real- estate mogul? One thing is certain: It was not the hallowed halls of an ivy-covered university.

For members of the Forbes 400, who have reached the financial apex, you would expect a basic requisite to be a college diploma, if not an MBA—assuming, of course, they didn’t inherit their riches. Yet Murdock, Blixseth, and Flatley all made fortunes with little formal schooling. And they aren’t alone. Four of the five richest Americans on the 2006 Forbes 400 list—software king Bill Gates, casino impresario Sheldon Adelson, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, whose combined net worth in 2006 came to a staggering $110 billion—are all college dropouts. The only university grad among the top five is America’s second-richest man, genius investor Warren Buffett, who graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1949. In fact, in any given year over the past twenty- five years, about 10 percent of the Forbes 400 either dropped out of high school, only graduated from high school, or never finished college.

If you ask the nation’s richest man, Bill Gates, what’s behind his success, he’ll attribute his accomplishments to a sort of chaos theory: “My success just proves that life is chaotic . . . some butterfly did the right thing for me.” Buffett uses a different metaphor but holds out a similar explanation for his success (and it doesn’t refer to his 1951 master’s degree in economics from Columbia University). As Buffett puts it: “I was wired at birth to allocate capital.” But of course, success is not as simple, or as elusive, as those responses suggest.

To begin with, there’s the matter of raw intelligence. For most of the decades prior to the early 1990s, the notion of intelligence quotient, or IQ, was paramount in explaining why some people excelled at certain tasks. But the use of IQ scores as a measure of future success, except for gauging results on academic tests, has since fallen out of favor. It seems hard to argue that IQs don’t matter when you consider that Bill Gates’s score is reportedly a mind- boggling 170, far above the 130 or so required to become a member of Mensa, the high-intelligence society, and even higher than Albert Einstein’s reputed 160. What’s more, Gates’s successor-to-be at Microsoft, Steven Ballmer (2006 net worth: $13.6 billion), is said to have an equally impressive score. But one of the failings of such tests becomes obvious when you consider that not all high-IQ individuals achieve the financial status of Gates and Ballmer, while many people who score poorly turn out to be megabillionaires. “It’s not a magical measure of people’s capacities, but just one more test that you can be good or not good at,” says K. Anders Ericsson, psychology professor at Florida State University.

Many researchers, such as Robert Sternberg, author of Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence Determine Success in Life and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, agree that the notion of general intelligence alone has little value. “Just as low scores on intelligence tests don’t preclude success,” says Sternberg, “neither do high scores guarantee it.” The whole concept of relating IQ to life achievement is misguided, Sternberg believes, because “IQ is a pretty miserable predictor of life achievement.” Research shows, in fact, that IQ counts for only 10 to 20 percent of career success. More than a decade ago, therefore, researchers shifted their focus to other types of intelligence. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, says you need to factor in aptitudes such as empathy, interpersonal skills, and self-control. “The road to success will, of course, always include enough general intelligence to do the job,” but being a star also requires a hefty dose of social skills, argues Goleman. As one executive headhunter puts it, “CEOs are hired for their intellect and business expertise—and fired for a lack of emotional intelligence.”

But even a lack of emotional intelligence is sometimes no deterrent to success. One look at the Forbes 400 list and it’s easy to spot bosses with reputations for being physically and emotionally removed from their employees. You have to consider other factors, too, says Sternberg—such as knowledge, thinking style, personality, and the business environment. What he terms successful intelligence is actually a “confluence of strong analytical, creative, and practical abilities.” That doesn’t mean superachievers have to shine in all three, but they do have “to find a way effectively to exploit whatever pattern of abilities they may have,” he says. What sets apart the megastars from the mediocre, then, is not one trait or even a bundle of specific traits, but an alchemic convergence of a variety of strengths—as well as the know-how to use them.

Yet even when all these forms of intelligence are present, researchers say, success won’t happen without a few other key ingredients, including determination and hard work. “It all has to come together for people to reach the Forbes list,” says Anthony Mayo, director of the Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School. “But, assuming they made it on their own, they had to have had ambition and drive.” While drive alone won’t propel a dullard to success, of course, without it even the most educated, analytic, creative minds won’t get an idea off the ground. All of which goes a long way toward explaining how Murdock, Blixseth, Flatley, and others without advanced degrees managed to strike it rich.

Academic underachievers who go on to great business success often have a couple of things in common. They started working at a very young age; and while school may not have been good for their egos, working was. David Murdock is a classic example. As a high-school dropout, Murdock had entrepreneurial drive that more than compensated for his stunted schooling. The son of an often unemployed traveling salesman who peddled everything from insurance to small electric generators, young Murdock, born in 1924, experienced the misery of the Depression years firsthand in rural Wayne, Ohio. At sixteen he dropped out of school. But by the time he would have celebrated his twentieth high-school reunion, Murdock was worth $100 million. As a fit, sharp, and energetic octogenarian who only half jokes about living to 125, Murdock is the sole owner of two huge enterprises: Dole Food, the nation’s largest fruit and vegetable company, and real- estate development company Castle & Cooke. His net worth in 2006: $4.2 billion.

A hard-charging businessman, Murdock has a complicated relationship with his past: He once suggested to a potential biographer that a book about his life start at age forty-three. As a child Murdock was short and uninterested in sports, making him a target for bullies. This constant taunting may be what motivated him to do great things. His response to the bullies was, according to his sister, “I’ll make money. I’ll be as big as you are.”

Just why Murdock dropped out of high school remains unclear. He has offered several accounts over the years. “I wasn’t motivated,” he once said. A later explanation was that he suffered from dyslexia. It’s also possible that he quit to help out his family financially after a kerosene fire burned down their modest home and seriously burned his mother. Whatever the case, Murdock was motivated to work hard at moneymaking pursuits: at the local duck hatchery, pumping gas, and as a riveter just before he was drafted into the army. It was during military service that Murdock realized several key things about himself. One was that he didn’t want to take orders from anyone. He also learned that although he was a high-school dropout, he was not dim-witted. He once mentioned that he got a “very high rating” on an intelligence test the army gave him. For much of World War II, Murdock was a gunnery instructor traveling from post to post. Along the way an army buddy got him interested in books, especially biographies of business titans like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford. “They excited my mind incredibly,” Murdock recalled—so much so that he allegedly began to keep files on the nation’s richest people in an attempt to fathom the secrets to their success.

Once out of the military, Murdock bounced around the country and landed in Detroit, where he borrowed a few thousand dollars to buy a small diner. It was his first entrepreneurial success: He sold it two years later, nearly doubling his money. Then, barely twenty-three, Murdock and his young wife drove their trailer home to Phoenix. The city was booming, fueled by the postwar Western migration. He teamed up with a carpenter and started building houses literally from the ground up: He dug ditches, poured concrete, scrapped together construction materials. “Dave was a bulldog with ambition, who struck some people as obnoxious,” a colleague from the early days noted, “but he knew how to take an idea and make it go.” As Phoenix grew, so did Murdock. And as Murdock grew, so did his drive to succeed and to overcome his hardscrabble roots.

By the early 1960s, Murdock had arrived. He built up a publicly traded holding company for his thriving commercial real-estate and banking ventures. Time magazine called him one of the West’s brightest entrepreneurs. He formed his own private club, which attracted Phoenix’s financial elite, and he hobnobbed in Rome with an international set. “It was very important to him to be around a certain class of people,” a friend later recalled. But Murdock’s empire collapsed a few years later, when the overbuilt Phoenix real- estate market tanked. That, combined with alleged fraud by a company official (the indictment was later dismissed), forced Murdock to liquidate most of his holdings to pay off debts.

“I had all my eggs in one basket and I didn’t even know it,” Murdock admitted about those years. But Murdock, like many entrepreneurs, is nothing if not resilient. He took $3 million in cash that he had stowed away from his private construction company and moved to Los Angeles. This time he invested shrewdly in what to him were sure things—asset-rich, undervalued, and overlooked companies. The strategy worked: By 1982 Murdock’s new empire brought him a $400 million fortune, enough to secure him a place on the first Forbes 400 list.

Like Murdock, California billionaire and college dropout Timothy Blixseth is a youthful underachiever who made good. He is the first to tell you that his success in the timber and real-estate industries has nothing to do with talent or formal education. “Some people say you’re just born with certain talents. I’m not sure I have any,” he says matter-of-factly. That’s why he got into timber, he says, the only work he was familiar with while growing up in the lumber town of Roseburg, Oregon. “No one taught me. I had to teach myself by working and learning, working and learning. And I made a lot of mistakes. I say I graduated from UHK, the University of Hard Knocks.”

Like Murdock, Blixseth grew up poor, in a family of five children. His father had a heart condition, the result of a serious childhood illness, and couldn’t provide for the family. But unlike Murdock, Blixseth talks freely and humorously about his early hardships. “I was born on welfare,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many ways you can eat Spam.” Ask Blixseth what his nickname was in school and he quips: “I was so poor they wouldn’t give me one.” Boyish and casual, the fiftysomething Blixseth can, of course, laugh these days about his family poverty—now that he dines regularly at the swanky Beverly Hills restaurant Spago, takes his Gulfstream G550 from Los Angeles to Paris, and skis at his own Yellowstone Club in Montana, an exclusive members-only retreat.

Not bad for a kid who, also like Murdock, was humiliated daily in school. At lunchtime, as Blixseth tells it, teachers separated the students on welfare who got a free lunch from those who could afford to pay. “The kids in the welfare line got heckled every single darned day,” Blixseth says. Finally, “A spark plug went off and I said, ‘This is not what I want to do. I’m going to show you guys that I’m as good as you are.’ ” After school let out, Blixseth took whatever odd jobs he could find, from boxing groceries to working at a nearby lumber mill on the four-p.m.-to-midnight shift. He started honing his marketing skills as a teenager. Every day he perused the classifieds looking for ways to make money, sometimes by adding value to goods he could buy on the cheap and sell at a profit. For example, Blixseth turned an easy profit by buying donkeys and creatively reselling them as pack mules (which resemble donkeys but are more reliable and durable on the trail).

Such creativity and freethinking weren’t encouraged in the Blixseth household. His father was a minister in a restrictive “offbeat religion, a kind of minicult,” as Blixseth describes it, which prohibited watching television, listening to music, dancing, even taking out insurance. But Blixseth says he didn’t buy into his parents’ beliefs, and at night he listened to music in the dark on a small transistor radio: “Music was my escape; it was freedom to me.” Although college wasn’t encouraged, Blixseth decided to give it a try. He lasted one day at Roseburg’s Umpqua Community College: “The guy started talking about philosophy and I thought, ‘That’s great, but it won’t help me make a living.’ ” He never returned.

By this time, however, he was getting a taste of the potential that lay in the tall timbers around Roseburg. At eighteen, he made a quick $50,000 by putting down $1,000 on timberland that he knew a nearby company had been eyeing, and then selling the contract to the company. For a while he used the proceeds to underwrite car trips between Roseburg and Hollywood, where he hoped to make it in his dream career, songwriting. But he never lost sight of the timber business. Whenever he returned home, he spent entire days researching potential deals, trying to match timberland sellers with possible buyers, taking loans, and gambling that he could sell the land at huge profits. His gambles paid off: By the time he was twenty-five Blixseth had made millions.
Peter W. Bernstein|Annalyn Swan|Author Q&A

About Peter W. Bernstein

Peter W. Bernstein - All the Money in the World

Photo © Courtesy of the Authors

Peter W. Bernstein and Annalyn Swan are veteran journalists and editors who between them have worked at U.S. News & World Report, Time, Newsweek, and Fortune magazines over the last twenty-five years. Bernstein is the coeditor of The New York Times Practical Guide to Practically Everything and editor of The Ernst & Young Tax Guide. Bernstein and Swan are cofounders of ASAP Media, which helped produce Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind the Da Vinci Code. They live in New York City.

About Annalyn Swan

Annalyn Swan - All the Money in the World

Photo © Courtesy of the Authors

Peter W. Bernstein and Annalyn Swan are veteran journalists and editors who between them have worked at U.S. News & World Report, Time, Newsweek, and Fortune magazines over the last twenty-five years. Swan is coauthor, with Mark Stevens, of de Kooning: An American Master, which was chosen as one of the ten best books of 2005 by The New York Times Book Review, and which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award. Bernstein and Swan are cofounders of ASAP Media, which helped produce Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind the Da Vinci Code. They live in New York City.

Author Q&A

Q: What do the richest people in America have to teach us about making money?  Do they all have something in common?
There’s lots to learn by studying America’s super-rich. While it’s hard to generalize about any group of 1302 people–the number who have appeared on the list since it first appeared in 1982–our study led us to conclude that those that make the 400 are truly different in certain key respects. For example, they seem to have a different tolerance for risk-taking than the average entrepreneur or businessperson. (Not coincidentally, many are card-players and like to gamble.) It’s not that they necessarily take bigger risks in business, but they are better at calculating downside risk. Some 400 members, of course, have had brushes with personal bankruptcies, but statistically not all that many. (Being lucky is another key trait shared by many of the 400.) And many 400 members whom we interviewed are contrarians. When you’re selling, they’re buying.
But the single biggest common denominator we found is a tremendous amount of drive and focus to succeed. Not necessarily to make money per se, but to succeed.
Q: What’s the most important factor in making the Forbes 400 list? Inheriting loads of dough?  Getting a top-notch education? 
Those happen to be the two most common assumptions about the very rich–the first, that most have inherited their money, and the second, that they have parlayed a top-notch education into masses of money. The reality is far more complex. While it is true that the single easiest way to make it onto the list remains inheriting a fortune, fewer and fewer heirs are showing up in the ranks of the 400–down from 47 percent in 1982, the year the list was founded, to 30 percent in 2006. What’s more, when we looked at twelve of the “old money” families most associated with wealth in this country–the Rockefellers, DuPonts, Hearsts, etc.–we found that the percentage of Forbes 400 wealth held by the families collectively fell from 21.4 percent in 1982 to 1.7 percent in 2006. Of course, they still have plenty of money–just not the biggest fortunes of today.
As for education, it turns out that a “blue-chip” degree doesn’t translate into much beyond good connections. Overall, those who have never graduated from college–some 10 percent of the list annually–are richer than those with a degree or degrees. And of the top five on the 2006 list, four–Bill Gates, casino impresario Sheldon Adelson, Oracle’s Larry Eillson, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, with a combined net worth of a staggering $110 billion–are all college dropouts.
Bottom line, personal determination and drive are far more important than either education or inherited wealth.

Q: How has the Forbes 400 list changed over the past 25 years?  How does that reflect trends in the way that wealth is generated in the United States?
The makeup of the 400 has changed dramatically over the last 25 years, both in terms of who’s on the list and where their money comes from. While in 1982 almost half of the individuals on the list inherited their fortunes, today almost three-quarters of the richest Americans are self-made. Similarly, twenty-five years ago, oil and manufacturing were responsible for the largest number of fortunes–23% and 15% respectively. Today, the biggest sources of fortunes are finance (almost 25%), media (14%) and technology (12%). And there’s been a huge shift in the geographic distribution of wealth as well–from east to west. The number and percentage of Forbes 400 fortunes in California has almost doubled over the life of the list. Meanwhile, there has been a sharp decline in New York fortunes–though things could be shifting again with the growth in private equity and hedge fund fortunes.
Q: There are so many surprising facts and statistics in this book.  What is the single most interesting thing you learned in the process of researching and writing this book?
That’s like asking a parent which child is his favorite! Probably the single most fascinating thing we learned is how surprisingly different and textured the composite 400 are, unlike so many of the clichés about the super-rich that appear in movies, magazines and the media in general. First off, their fortunes aren’t just derived from finance, high tech or entertainment, to name three high-profile fields. What we call blue-collar billionaires in fact account for 10 to 20 percent of the fortunes in any given year. There’s nothing new about collecting garbage, but that’s how serial billionaire Wayne Huizenga made his first fortune. J.B. Hunt started his trucking empire by finding new uses for poultry litter. And 99 cent stores, today’s equivalent of the old five and dime, are the source of another 400 fortune.
Nor does the spending of the very, very rich jibe with popular notions. Most Forbes 400 members aren’t champagne-swilling, caviar-gorging, lavish partying types–though some certainly are, and their exploits are covered in the Conspicuous Consumption chapter of our book. Certainly the 400 have the money to spend: their fortunes have soared much faster in the past 25 years than the amount needed to support a lavish lifestyle, as our Cost of Living Well chart in the book clearly shows. But it must be said that many of the best examples of excess and pretension over the last 25 years have in fact been the work of the lesser rich. And another plus on the side of the super-rich: philanthropic giving remains a powerfully entrenched tradition among America’s wealthiest people (though the evidence suggests that the super-rich are no more generous than less rich Americans in giving away their money, if you consider their giving in terms of their overall wealth.)
Q: How long did this project take you, and whom did you interview to get so much data?  Were members of the Forbes list willing to talk to you?
We were extremely lucky in that, throughout the three years we worked on All the Money in the World, we, together with our team of talented writer/reporters, had great access both to the 400 themselves and to a vast database at Forbes of never-before-compiled facts and figures about America’s biggest fortunes. We collectively interviewed or corresponded with dozens of 400 members themselves and their family members, as well as with many writers, professors and analysts who have thought and written about wealth. We also compiled original statistics on everything from which colleges have the richest graduates (MIT is the winner), to who lost and gained the most money when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000/2001 (Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, respectively, to the tune of billions of dollars) to the richest immigrants (Sergey Brin, from Russia, followed by Germany’s John W. Kluge) to how many fortunes come from blue-collar businesses (at least 175 over the past 25 years). And on and on.
Q: Why do you think the list is predominantly comprised of white males?
That remains a great, unanswered mystery of the 400 list. While it stands to reason that, as the number of heirs on the list dwindled over the years versus self-made millionaires and billionaires, so the number of heiresses declined as well. But why aren’t there more self-made women to match the growing numbers of self-made men–especially during a period when more and more women entered the workforce and maintained full-time careers? Of the richest women on the 400 list over the past 25 years, only one–Doris Fisher, cofounder of the Gap–didn’t inherit her money from a family or spouse. Self-made female billionaires are so scarce that they are the genuine celebrities of the list, among them Oprah Winfrey, Estee Lauder and Martha Stewart.
The lack of female 400 members so intrigued us that we asked many of the billionaires whom we interviewed why they thought that so few women had made it to the top of the money tree. And no one was brave enough to hazard a guess!
Q: How do the richest Americans compare to the richest people worldwide? 
That’s a fascinating question, and one that points to a tremendous amount of flux at the moment. For two decades, Americans have dominated the Forbes companion list of the World’s Richest People. But other nationalities are catching up fast. Americans accounted for 44 percent of the world’s richest people in 2007, but that’s down 3 percent from a year before. The list currently includes billionaires from 53 countries, which shows the growing globalization of wealth. The top 20, who accounted for an eye-popping $537 billion among them, came from 11 different countries. (The list does not include royals and dictators, or anyone who makes his or her money directly from the state.) And just as Americans make their money in increasingly varied ways, so too do the world’s billionaires. Mexican industrialist Carlos Slim Helu, the second richest man in the world after Bill Gates–some claim he has now surpassed Gates–made his fortune in banking, construction, mining, auto parts, real estate, insurance, and a seven-year monopoly over the Mexican telecom market in the 1990s. Sounds like the story of a variety of 400 members all rolled into one.
Q:  I want to be on the Forbes 400 list — what should I do first?  Second? 
First thing I would do, of course, is read this book! For less than the price of anything on the Forbes Cost of Living Well Index–even a year’s subscription to Forbes magazine or a 10-minute long distance call (without calling plan) from NY to London–it will give you lots of ideas about how people over the past 25 years have accumulated vast wealth. Surprisingly, too, the book points out how and when to be a cheapskate–cutting costs being something at which 400 members are very good. Sometimes, as we discuss in the Winning is Everything chapter, they push the concept of spending the least possible money for the greatest possible return to the point of ruthlessness. As a group, they didn’t make their billions by being the high-cost producers of various items or services.
Our second piece of advice would be to follow a passion. Interestingly, most 400 members didn’t set out with the goal of making oodles of money. Their fortunes often resulted, as we write, from “hard work, homework and sheer drive to succeed”–not to mention more than a little good luck and fortuitous timing.
Q: Who do you think will top the 25th anniversary edition of the list?
There would be huge, huge headlines if Bill Gates weren’t at the top of the list. He has dominated the competition every year since 1994. But casino mogul Sheldon Adelson may give Gates a run for his money, as it were, sometime soon. In the two years since Adelson took his Las Vegas Sands public, he has gotten rich faster than anyone else in history–making just under $1 million an hour. And Carlos Slim Helu of Mexico (see the world billionaire question above) is currently battling Gates for the title of richest man in the world, with some giving the edge to Slim. The 400 list only includes Americans.

Q: Does a huge fortune bring corresponding amounts of happiness?

So you’d think. And most of the 400 members we asked to comment agreed, on balance, that money often does bring happiness. But not always. One of our favorite responses came from T. Boone Pickens, who said, “A happy person with money is probably happier, and an unhappy person with money is never happy. Money is not going to fix it. At least that’s what my mother used to tell me–and it’s true.” Another great response came from Google backer Kavitark Ram Shriram, who coined his own koan. “Money does not bring happiness,” he wrote. “It brings complexity.”

From the Hardcover edition.



“Full of rags-to-riches stories and colorful anecdotes that make it . . . compulsively readable.”
The New York Times

“Cogent, fluid, encyclopedic in its detail, this book touches on almost every aspect of getting and spending [money].”
International Herald Tribune

“A well written and edited compilation of facts and anecdotes. . . . Gilt inevitably produces guilt.”
Providence Journal

All the Money in the World is not just scholarly; it's also highly readable and provocative.”

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