Posted By Randy Jones on February 17, 2009
I wanted to be rich from my earliest memory. In fact, I believe I was hardwired to see the world through the lens of affluence, even though I was growing up on a farm in Carrollton, Georgia, far from the glamour of what is usually associated with the so-called good life. Full disclosure: I was not poor by any stretch of the imagination. I have never known what it must be like to wonder where my next meal would come from or how I would make the late utility payment. Many might even say I grew up rich—but while I was privileged, certainly, it was not what I would call rich. At least, not by the definition I have come to apply to “rich” in my adult life. And certainly not in the strictest financial sense: I came from hard-working Southern stock; to me, it seemed my dad and mom never stopped working, and they made certain that my brothers and I “joined the fun.” It wasn’t always fun, but boy was it effective, and in many ways life-altering. Like my dad and mom, I love to work. Few things make me happier than ending a productive day or checking off my entire “to do” list. I thrive on that sense of accomplishment, that ineffable feeling that I have earned my keep.
Perhaps this is the reason I devoted the past few years of my life to writing The Richest Man in Town. And what a journey it has been: I have researched and interviewed the richest self-made man or woman in 100 American towns in an attempt to find out how they reached their American Dream and what we could learn from their seismic success. The voyage has enriched my life immeasurably, and not just in the financial sense, but also in the nourishment of my mind and indeed, my soul. I hope my book The Richest Man in Town, which will have its debut in late April of this year, has a similar effect on you.
So what I have learned after my cross-country journey peeking into the fertile minds of and seeking wisdom from America’s RMITs? First, I have seen how generous the rich can be. They are generous with their time, generous with their advice, and, yes, generous with their money. On the other hand, they are not saints; like any of us, they are not without their faults. But there is not a Bernard Madoff among them. Still, you don’t get to be megarich without ruffling a few feathers along the way. Creating great wealth can cause pain to others at times. When a private equity maven builds his wealth by chopping jobs, it causes pain for many. When an activist investor institutes a nasty proxy fight, it can make the lives of those running the company pure hell.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing I learned was that they are genuinely happy—most of them anyway, because they have sought success first and their wealth was simply the well-earned byproduct, merely a barometer of their success. I have learned that they have an incredibly insightful sense of self; they have found their perfect pitch—the thing that they were innately best equipped to do. They are independent in spirit; that’s why they own and run their own companies. They are action addicts, who rarely confuse activity with accomplishment, and they are obsessive about success, but in a good way, in most cases.
Their energy and passion for hard work is nearly insatiable, but to them work is not a job—it is a pleasure. They make things happen and enjoy the by-products of their accomplishments. Most are surprisingly humble, if extremely proud of their scorecard. They’re proud because they have faced failure head-on and slayed more than a few dragons with their dogged determination. They are nothing if not resilient in the wake of the inevitable storms and obstacles almost all of them encountered along their path to success. They do not fear failure—they embrace it.
I’ve also learned that RMITs don’t remotely resemble the traditional “millionaire next door.” First, they are way richer—with an average net worth of $3.5 billion, though that average number is skewed because of the superior fortunes of double-digit billionaire RMITs: Bill Gates ($53 billion), Larry Ellison ($25 billion), Larry Page ($19 billion), Sergey Brin ($19 billion), Michael Dell ($17 billion), Kirk Kerkorian ($16 billion) and Carl Icahn ($16 billion). The median net worth, however, is a more representative—but still a highly respectable—$1 billion.
RMITs are also far different from the so-called millionaire next door because, while they live relatively quiet lives, in most cases their lifestyles are anything but austere. They enjoy their money and they are not afraid to spend their hard-earned dollars. Three-quarters of them have a private jet—the lifestyle gift that is just simply too hard to resist. They own more than 30 yachts among them. Some have cocooned themselves into a kind of isolation that seems lonely to an outsider peeking through their iron gates, but those are the rare few. The vast majority are making a difference in the town they most love, and can’t imagine living, working, or succeeding anywhere else. These American success stories seem to have a masterful, instinctive moral compass that has served them well and continues to guide them. There is not a felony conviction among them that I could uncover. And as they say in the old Smith Barney advertisement, they made their money the old-fashioned way—they earned it.
Eighty-four of America’s RMITs are college graduates. Ten went to Ivy League schools; two are college dropouts; 14 didn’t attend college at all. Seventy-six are married; 64 are still married to their first spouse. Fifty-two are Republican, 29 are Democrats, and 19 are independents. Three give all the glory for their wealth to God, and two are atheists. Thirty percent of RMITs are first-born children, 15 percent second-born, and 12 percent are the babies of their families. A disproportionate number—11—are the only child in their family. I have seen first-hand that these American success stories are proudly persuasive. They credit much of their success to their communication skills, but most of them acknowledge that doing what they love is the real key to their success and wealth. They surround themselves with the best and brightest people, recognizing wisely that they don’t have all the answers, but they are also confident that they know where to get those often elusive answers and solutions. They are eternal students, constantly questing for that next level of learning and exploration. They have a voracious hunger for knowledge and really no appetite for retirement.
That wise philosopher and comedian, Mae West, perhaps put it best when she said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and believe me, rich is better!” Mae was right, but only if your gain is the result of some real value you have contributed to a worthwhile enterprise or from a significant difference you have made in the your community. RMITs are rich in the fullest sense of the word. Here’s hoping you experience a similar fate. This site will guide you there if you have the desire. It will allow you a voyeuristic peek into their world, but more important, it will inspire you to even greater heights. At least that is my fondest wish, and that is what makes me truly the richest man in town. Welcome to richestmanintown.com.