Wealth Shift: The Decline of Ethics in America
Back to Table of Contents

Lesson #4 – Money Isn’t Everything – It’s The Only Thing

When it comes to money and all the things money can buy, CEOs are a very competitive lot. They will compete over just about anything. And I do mean anything. I will never forget one document signing party I was present at in the mid-1990’s. In attendance were: 1 billionaire, 2 multi-millionaires, and a host of assorted high-powered suits (lawyers, bankers, CPAs, etc). While we were all waiting for the lowly $20/hour notary public to arrive (without whom we were all ironically quite worthless, since no documents could be signed), the executives and even some of the suits began pulling out their cell phones and laying them on the conference table. I could see them eyeing each other’s phones. It didn’t take long for them to start comparing. After about ten minutes of heated discussion about the merits of this one over that, it became clear to all that the winner was one of the millionaires who had shown up at the meeting sporting what (at that time) was the very latest in technology -a very small and swanky titanium job. (Sigh. In the olden days men used to compare guns - now its high-tech gadgets.)

This over-arching spirit of monetary competition often leads executives to do things they might not otherwise do. It clouds perspective and rearranges priorities. Who has the best compensation package? The fastest plane? The biggest yacht? I have a client whose offices are so deluxe that Hollywood came knocking on his door wanting to use them as the setting for one of the scenes in the television movie ‘Return to Dallas’, I know a billionaire who “won’t even get out of bed for less than $250,000”, and a millionaire whose favorite phrase is “money may not be able to buy love, but it can buy affection so close it’s hard to tell the difference”.

Think about it. Who doesn’t just scan Forbes lists of the wealthiest and most highly compensated people in the world, but practically commits it to memory instead? The people who are either on the list, or want desperately to be on the list, that’s who. Wouldn’t it knock us on the floor if Forbes started using a measuring stick other than money to rank the world’s executives? How about compiling the list of most philanthropic more often than once a decade? How about running articles about the houses billionaires have bought and given to their employees as a bonus, instead of the new vacation ones they have recently built for themselves? Radical, huh?

Executives justify their competitive spending by saying they are putting people to work to invent and then build all the cool things they buy. But how many more people could you put to work building 50 homes, instead of just one more big one for yourself? Executives also justify their competitive spending by saying their employees aren’t deserving of their patronage. But whose fault is that? If your company is filled with people who are undeserving of your consideration, then fix it. Clean house! Instead of making yet another lame excuse for why the wealth shouldn’t trickle down, start with 5% of your employees on either end of the spectrum. Do something really special for the 5% who you already feel are worthy of your patronage, and fire the 5% who are the biggest Wealth Shifters in the land. Don’t replace the Wealth Shifters. If you see no results, then hit it again. Don’t just do the punishment part, the way so many companies do. You’ve got to do the reward part, too, if you want to drive home anything but fear.

Philanthropy is another area where many ultra-high net worth individuals are sorely lacking. The latest and greatest “excuse” for failing to be proactively philanthropic is “I am waiting to do my giving until” – fill in the blank (I am older, or wiser, or find the right cause). Oh yes, by all means. It would be a shame to give away a hundred million dollars to the school that educated you, or the people who are dedicating their lives to making advancements in medical research, or the charities that are helping people who have been impoverished by disaster get back on their feet. What a ghastly mistake it would be to give away a million dollars and then find out later in life that the charity you gave your money to was not the “right” charity for you! After all, you don’t yet know what disease you are suddenly going to get and wish there was a quick and painless cure for.

All sarcasm aside, philanthropy, like patronage, is something nobody should “wait” to start doing. And if your secret motivation for waiting is that you don’t really want to share the wealth because you need all the money you can lay your hands on to stay competitive with other rich people, then, wow, do you need an accountability partner.

Anyone who isn’t ultra-rich yet, but who is trying to figure how far they are willing to go to claw their way up the rungs to get there, should think about doing what I like to call the “wealth” experiment. Research the lives of the blatantly rich and famous. How many times have they been divorced? What are their children and grandchildren like? Experiment with some of their “goodies” and then decide what you think. Are the things they spend their money on worth spending your money on? For example, try eating out at various restaurants of all price ranges and ratings and see what you think. Which meal did you like the best? Where do your true tastes lie?

I did this myself. Over a period of four years, I ate at some of the finest restaurants in the world. I have eaten at Jean-Georges’ in Las Vegas, L’atalier de Joel Robuchon in New York, Gordon Ramsey’s at Claridge’s in London, Alain Ducasse’s Louis XVI in the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, to name a few. In each instance, the food and wine was well in excess of $500 per person.

During the same period of time, I tried lesser meals and wines at places like the rooftop restaurant at the Hotel Danieli in Venice, The French Room at the Adolphus in Dallas, and The Restaurant Jules Verne halfway up the Eiffel Tower in Paris. At none of these restaurants did we spend more than $125 per person.

From time to time I also ate at your typical local restaurants and casual-dining places where the tab ran about $30 per person. And finally, during these four years, I decided to learn more about wine and how to cook like a Top Chef. Interestingly, I found that cooking amazing meals at home was actually more fulfilling from a creative standpoint.

I started my own tradition of preparing four-course TV tray wine dinners during the Dallas Cowboy’s games (and, of course, the Superbowl). These dinners turned out to be a huge hit during one of the craziest seasons of football I have ever seen. We’d start the kickoff with an appetizer like macadamia-encrusted goat cheese crostini and ice-cold Chimay Grand Reserve beer. Then, at the beginning of the second quarter (but only if the Cowboys had scored) we would move on to a soup like my maple and apple cider-infused butternut squash soup. Each course would begin at a quarter (but, again, only if the Cowboys had scored) and be accompanied by a different alcoholic beverage, and we’d finish the whole thing off with a glass of vintage port and some spectacular dessert like white-chocolate Grand Marnier soufflé with blood orange Crème Anglaise. I made the effort to prepare almost everything the morning of the game so I wouldn’t miss a minute (except for commercials), and the experience was so well received that we repeated the practice again this year.

During this culinary portion of my “wealth experiment”, I learned quite a few really important things about myself and my personal tastes:

1) Beyond a certain price-point, I felt like I had to pay a whole lot for very little incremental value. While I will probably continue to try really high-end restaurants from time to time in the future on very special occasions, I have no desire to eat that kind of food or spend that kind of money every day, no matter how rich I might be. I do eat out once a month at the $100-125 per person restaurants, however, and think that the money spent at those places is usually worth it.

2) While I can tell the difference between a $20 bottle of wine and an $80 bottle of wine, I can’t tell that much difference between an $80 bottle of wine and a $2,500 bottle of wine. While this may classify me as gauche, I could care less. I will never in my life again spend more than $200 in a restaurant for a bottle of wine. I have also come to really appreciate the local restaurants that are willing to let you bring your own wine if you pay a corking fee. With anywhere from a 50% to a 300% markup from retail on wine, I have a hard time buying wines in restaurants now that I’ve actually learned something about wine.

3) Given decent wine, food, and service, it’s really the setting you are in and the company you are with that makes a meal memorable.

While I won’t bore you with the minute details of the rest of my “wealth experiment”, I will say that at the end of it I concluded that insanely rich people actually have it pretty rough. Paying out the wazoo for anything that is reputedly “the best”, or for extreme privacy, or to avoid even the whisper of a hassle, all added up to a big fat waste in my book.

Insanely rich people who are really into their wealth move from their chauffeur-driven limos to their conveniently-waiting private planes, to their private homes on their private islands with their private yachts moored out front. They are so rarely inconvenienced that they can get quite ugly if they have to wait any length of time to be served. They have to be cautious where they go, eating out only at the hippest boutique restaurants where everybody else is also rich and nobody will bother them unless invited to do so by previous acquaintance.

Interestingly enough, in doing my “wealth experiment” I found I actually like experiencing a certain amount of hassle and also interacting with other people, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. Looking back on all my travels, some of my funniest stories are the hardship stories. Like the time we rented an Alfa Romeo convertible in Germany and I couldn’t figure out how to put it in reverse for two days. Or the time we rode donkeys down the cliffs in Santorini after getting pretty well sloshed in a restaurant in Fira. To me it was far more fun to ride the slow-poke ferry on Lake Como, seeing the sights, drinking a beer, and talking to the locals, than it was to hire my own boat and driver to take me straight from the Villa d’Este to Bellagio and back again.

It’s important for people to be firmly grounded in the knowledge of who they are and what they are pursuing. Don’t be so hungry to join the millionaire/billionaire club that you turn it into a fantasy. Wealth doesn’t fix everything, and it often creates more problems than it cures. In short, it simply isn’t worth it to sacrifice your reputation to get someplace you won’t even enjoy once you’re there.

Sadly, being a millionaire is so important to some people that they will even pretend to be one when, in fact, they really aren’t. In Dallas, this phenomenon is commonly known as the “Fifty-Thousand-Dollar Millionaire”. Living at home or in the tiniest loft they can find, they lease the fanciest car they can afford and buy a few incredibly expensive outfits. They then proceed to go out to the most expensive bars in town trolling for a real millionaire to marry. Nursing one $20 cocktail all night long, they mingle and wait to find just the right person to hook up with. Craftily avoiding all relevant questions about themselves, they come across as the perfect listener (and, thus, the perfect mate). If they look good enough -and get lucky enough – they marry and become a “trophy” spouse.

A vast number of “Millenials” – those who grew up watching how hard their parents work and how little they’ve been rewarded for it – actually want nothing to do with making money. If it doesn’t come easy (like getting a starring role in a reality TV series), they aren’t willing to work hard to get it. The pendulum, having swung too far one way, is now swinging back the other. We are mistaken if we think we can motivate Gen Y by dangling the “millionaire’s club” carrot in front of them. Not only do they see the carrot as merely the bait in someone else’s trap, Gen Y doesn’t necessarily need a lot of money to be happy.

Gen Y finds plenty of happiness in movies, thousands of channels on the TV, and increasingly realistic video games. They have invented alternate worlds they prefer to live in online, rather than actively participating in the cold, hard realities of this one. They can travel just fine in their games and in their heads, but if they do decide to travel in RL (that’s real-life for the uninitiated), they don’t mind backpacking, sleeping in trains and youth hostiles, and making single-serving friends who want nothing more from them than the (temporary) pleasure of their company. They are perfectly happy earning “just enough” money to make ends meet. If you ask them to tell you why, they will tell you. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket and anyone who doesn’t think so is an idiot. There will be time enough to join the workforce if, and when, the adults get their act together and fix this f-ed up economy.”

Executive Summary: We all have to watch our motivations for what we do. If we are competitive, we need to be careful not to make money the measuring stick by which we judge ourselves and others, because it is a very poor currency indeed. Many of the things that money can buy, including people, are not all they are cracked up to be. We need to do the hard work to determine what it is that we really want out of life as well as set boundaries for how far we are willing to go to get there.


Previous | Next