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Think Like A Billionaire
by Shaun Rein
Judging from the feedback I received after my recent column about Mr. Chen, a Chinese self-made billionaire, many readers were heartened to hear about someone who overcame poverty and ridicule from others better-educated and better-connected to make himself one of the world's richest people. Unlike many who let criticism discourage them, Mr. Chen uses derision to light a fire in himself to prove others wrong. Using criticism as a motivator is, in fact, a common trait I have found among many self-made billionaires. (See my article "How to Be a Billionaire.")
Nearly all the self-made billionaires I interviewed told me they had faced contempt from people born rich, just as Mr. Chen had. One Chinese Internet billionaire said that when he first tried to raise money from Silicon Valley venture capitalists, they pooh-poohed him because of his shabby clothes, broken English and lack of a Western education. "It pained me then," he said, on his way to his private jet, "but I guess I showed them."
Mr. Chen and other self-made billionaires who overcame the odds but remained humble are undoubtedly inspiring people, but I also wondered about those who inherited their wealth. What lessons could they teach us all, as we struggle to get ahead? Do they have problems too, like you and me, or do they live fairy tale lives?
To answer such questions, I've interviewed more a dozen billionaire families in the U.S., Europe and Asia over the past five years, as well as dozens more families worth over $100 million. I met some at palatial private estates fit for Louis XIV, replete with servant staffs with a different uniform for each different position, some at ordinary Starbucks ( SBUX - news - people ), others at exclusive private clubs in Hong Kong, New York or Boston, where mobile phones remain banned. Sometimes I interviewed multiple generations within the same family, to get different perspectives on making money and keeping it, to see how they differed between patriarchs and scions.
The first common thread I noticed among them all was that patriarchs who had built their families' wealth worried that their children would get lazy and spoiled, like Paris Hilton, and they tried to instill in them an appreciation for hard work. Well aware of the truism that wealth can last only three generations, they made sure to pass along their work ethic, drive and sense of responsibility, so their heirs would strive to preserve, and hopefully build on, the family fortune. I met with a 60-year-old billionaire in France whose family holdings covered a large swath of the French retail scene. He told me that his father, who had made the money originally, insisted that he wait on tables when he was a teenager. He had had his children do the same--and worried that his grandchildren wouldn't.
A wealthy man I talked to whose grandfather had been the president of a country was sent incognito to work at McDonald's ( MCD - news - people ) in the U.S. as a teenager, and his sisters all worked at Wendy's ( WEN - news - people ). The heir apparent of a billionaire Hong Kong family I spoke with had to work for years at the lowest rung of their empire when he started out. His father made him carry heavy sacks of fabric to different factories, to build respect within the organization and to show him the difficulties those at the bottom of the totem pole have to endure. All that hard work taught these privileged sons and daughters the value of real effort and making an honest dollar.
The billionaire families also taught me about keeping costs down in business. One clothing tycoon provided excellent benefits and salaries for his employees but also located his offices far from the more happening business centers, to cut down on real estate costs. He thought it was foolish to build pantheon-like office buildings and said that only CEOs who spent other people's money did that. I've found that generally to be true in my own experience. Virtually all of the most lavish chief executives' offices I've been in were outfitted using shareholders' or investors' money, as in the case of John Thain's suite at Bank of America ( BAC - news - people ).
One billionaire even located his company's headquarters on a working farm so he could receive tax benefits. When I visited his office there were sheep roaming around outside.
Another pattern I noticed was that being born with a silver Tiffany ( TIF - news - people ) spoon in your mouth does not guarantee happiness. The truly rich I spoke with seemed to have levels of happiness similar to most people. They might not be worrying about making the next payment on their car or covering their gas bill, like many of us, but those who inherit riches have their own problems.
Many confided concern about being looked down on for being born into wealth, feeling that no matter what they did or how talented they were, people wouldn't respect them for their business acumen. Others feared having too high a profile and getting criticized in the press or even kidnapped. Some had family members who had been kidnapped and held for ransom, so they never went anywhere without bodyguards nearby. A lot of them complained that they didn't know who they could trust, as they always attracted hangers-on who wanted something and weren't true friends. Fear and lack of trust were common threads--especially when the issue of marriage came up.
Still, none of the billionaires I spoke with said they would give up their wealth, no matter what problems it brought. On balance they found wealth more a blessing than a curse--as well as a source of a lot of thinking about both how to make it and how to keep it once you've got it.
Shaun Rein is the founder and managing director of the China Market Research Group, a strategic market intelligence firm. He writes for Forbes on leadership, marketing and China. Follow him on Twitter@shaunrein.
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