“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” - Aristotle
The Biltmore House in Ashville, NC is one of America's castles. It's a magnificent structure that honors human achievement. The wealth that made it possible came from Commodore Vanderbilt of steamship and railroad fame. With a net-worth of nearly $150 billion in today's dollars, Vanderbilt created one of the largest fortunes in American history. At a 1973 Vanderbilt family reunion however, not a single descendant was a millionaire. How did that happen? Profligate spending, gambling, and poor business decisions had an impact, but the affliction that broadly explains the travesty is "affluenza".
Vanderbilt's legacy was one of money - not of values - and a fortune was lost as a result.
You can create a very different legacy. To elaborate, I want to share a story about another family's path to wealth. It's a true story and it involves my best friend from childhood. You'll enjoy this, so let's get started....
Jimmy D was a typical Florida kid in the mid-70s. He was skinny and had the longish hair that was popular at the time. He lived three doors down from me in a cinder-block house that was built a few years after WWII. All the houses in the neighborhood were like that...parquet floors, no central air, and an attic fan...thank God. My house was on a corner lot where the neighborhood kids gathered to play baseball. Jimmy's house had a massive ditch behind it that ran the back length of the neighborhood and we frequently found alligators, coral snakes, and rattle snakes there. That ditch was a great place to have war games with the neighborhood kids....and we shot each other with BB guns on more than a few occasions. We had a blast! And yes, we were stupid. This story isn't about Jimmy D though. At least not directly. It's about his dad.
Mr. D was a tall man with the dark skin of his "black-Irish" heritage and those cool, cold-blue eyes that you didn't want to have mad at you. Born in New York, he had moved south to Jacksonville for the warmer weather after his high school graduation. Having been trained as a welder, he started a 1-man machine shop that worked on the barges that made their way across the Atlantic to deliver their goods to the Jacksonville shipyards on the St. John's River. Outside of me knowing that Mr. D drank Budweiser when he took me to the river with the rest of his family, I really didn't know much about the man when I was little. As life would have it, my parents moved me and my brothers to Atlanta when I was 13 and Jimmy D and I lost touch. But we'd reconnect eventually....and that's where this story gets interesting.
It didn't start with good news. When I was in my late 20's, my mother called to let me know that she'd heard that Jimmy's mom had passed away. Breast cancer. Even though I hadn't talked to Jimmy in nearly fifteen years, I called information (this was pre-Google, so you had to call 411), got his number, and reached out to express my condolences. He and I ended up having dinner a few weeks later. After talking about his mom for a bit, the conversation turned to his dad. Jimmy told me that his dad still had the business and things were going well. I was curious and asked "How many people does he have working with him now?" I didn't think it was a hard question and was a little surprised when Jimmy sat back in his chair and he got that far-away look in his eyes. He was clearly thinking hard about something. When his eyes came back into focus, Jimmy said, "Something in the neighborhood of 1,100."
Eleven hundred employees! I was flabbergasted! It turned out Mr. D had locations in two southern cities and had a business valued at over $50 million. A man that had only a high school education and who'd been a welder when I was growing up...well, that guy was now wealthy and had built a great business! At the time, I was still pretty young in my financial planning career and thought this was amazing. As I'm approaching thirty years of experience now, I can tell you with certainty that this story isn't unique at all. It was, as Mr D would later tell me, "a twenty year overnight success."
When I reflect back on my childhood memories of Jimmy's family, and when I look at others who have both financial security and happy family lives, I see a lot of things in common. Education was a big deal to Jimmy's parents. They sent their four children to Sacred Heart Catholic School, a private school in Jacksonville, and I suspect that they didn't have much money to spare at the time. Like the other kids in the neighborhood, neither Jimmy nor I received allowances from our parents. We had to work for our money....after doing chores at home. At the age of 9, Jimmy and I were both canvassing the neighborhood asking people if we could mow their lawns or rake-up pine straw. We charged $5 and we'd usually make $10 to $15 on a weekend. We also scoured the area for the unbroken glass soda bottles that people left in the streets (people really were bad about things like that in the 70's....remember the TV commercials with the Indian and the tear?). Anyway, we found those bottles and turned them in for the recycling fee...which ended up paying for fries at the local McDonalds or pizza at Pizza Hut. We weren't the only ones working though. I can still remember looking out the window of my home to see that Mr. D's car was already gone from his driveway when my parents and I were getting dressed in the morning. Mr. D also got home much later in the evening than the other fathers in the neighborhood. But it wasn't just about work. Church was a big deal in the D family. The Ds were Catholic and went to church every Sunday. I remember, because Catholic church always seemed to run long....and I'd wait outside in the hot Florida sun until Jimmy returned home. I also recall that Jimmy and I never did anything together on Sunday nights. When I asked why, Jimmy told me it was because Sunday night was pizza night at the Ds....and it was a family-only occasion.
Mr. D is getting up in age now and I know he's thinking about the legacy he'll leave when he's not with us anymore. While I'm not his son, I can say with certainty that his legacy is a lot more than money. He has passed on important values about the importance of family, faith, education, and hard work to his children, grandchildren, and those around him. Yes, he also has financial wealth to share, but I suspect if he had to choose between leaving his kids money or those other values, he would choose to pass along the latter. That sentiment is probably shared by a lot of us.
Unfortunately, we have a values problem in America today. The 2016 presidential election showed an ugly side of our national psyche. You have heard the stories about how disagreements over politics drove some family members to not speak to one another or to miss Thanksgiving or Christmas gatherings. Today, I read posts on Facebook that are, quite literally, hateful. Identity politics is replacing reason. On college campuses, we have young men and women rioting to quell free speech. The media and our political leaders tell half-truths. And as citizens and consumers, we pick our spots so that we hear what we want to hear and avoid hearing things that challenge our preferred narrative. The issues are even bigger than politics though: We quietly wonder what will happen to our society when artificial intelligence and machine learning really move into high-gear. At this firm, I also hear values-based concerns. Clients tell me that - in addition to the financial goals they want to achieve - they worry about affluenza among their children and grandchildren. They also worry about the lack of deeper family and community connections.
This is not who we want to be. So let's do something about it.
I've been watching the rise of this behavior over the last several years and, like many of you, it worries me. Our social fabric is tearing. After hearing more and more about the concerns of friends and clients, I decided to do something about it.
In January, I went to work to build an entirely new values-based approach to building family wealth. I call it the Family Bank. It's built on the premise that outcomes are largely based on our values. But values that are only held, but never expressed, are like knowledge that is never used. They are meaningless. For values to have impact, they have to be modeled....and in a family, that means family traditions and habits. As a result, I've designed a unique and robust process that helps families find clarity regarding their values and then develop powerful family traditions so that those values are expressed. The ultimate goal of the Family Bank is to make sure that families are operating on a solid, values-engaged foundation so that: (1) they build long-term financial wealth, (2) their children and grandchildren come to understand the value of money, to respect it, and to manage it, and (3) their family and community relationships are enhanced through a family-involved approach to charitable giving.
I'm more jazzed about this than any other thing I've done in my career. Like you, I want to make the world a better place. This is one of the ways I can do it.
If you believe this is a good idea, I have two favors to ask of you. First, if you have family traditions that you really think are neat, please drop me an email and let me know the details. Oh, and "like" it too! I want to share good ideas with other families to help them get to where you may already be. My second favor is that I'd like you to share this article with others. Know that you have my appreciation in advance.
Enjoy the summer!
Bruce Wing is the president of Strategic Wealth, LLC, a Registered Investment Adviser located on the north side of Atlanta.
Entrepreneur, financial guy, husband and father of two great kids.