Donald J. Trump, the controversial real estate mogul and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, has openly boasted about a net wealth of more than $10 billion. Forbes stated his actual net wealth was closer to $4 billion, while the Bloomberg Billionaires Index came in with a $2.9 billion figure. Either way, Mr. Trump has a lot of money.
Born into a very wealthy family, Trump made a few successful real estate investments in the Manhattan market in the 1980s before transitioning to self-marketing in the 1990s. Trump bought beauty pageants, football teams, television shows and fashion lines. With every investment, Trump infused his own brand: brash, boisterous, unapologetic and always entertaining, and marketers loved it. In a way, Donald Trump built his wealth simply from the fact his name was Donald Trump.
When Donald Trump Became Rich
It can be tricky to define "rich." Some studies in the United Kingdom have suggested people begin to feel "rich" when they can spend $75,000 a year without having to work; this equates to about $1.5 million in net wealth at 5% per year. By this standard, Donald Trump became rich the day he was born.
Trump's father, Fred, made a sizable fortune by building and selling housing for American soldiers and their families in World War II. It was at his father's real estate company that Donald got his start in business. Fred Trump died in 1999 with an estimated net wealth between $250 million and $450 million. Most of this money was made when Donald was in high school and college from the real estate business. It is estimated Trump received an inheritance worth between $40 million and $200 million from his father's estate.
How Donald Trump Became Even Richer: Early Struggles
Donald Trump became acting president of his father's organization in 1974. He stuck mostly with real estate investments during this period, particularly condo associations, huge apartment buildings and Federal Housing Administration (FHA)-backed housing, all in the New York metropolitan area. In 1980, Trump established The Trump Organization to oversee all of his real estate operations; this was the first of literally hundreds of businesses, organizations and books with the name "Trump" in the title. Early on, Trump had a knack for building and renovating under budget and ahead of schedule.
Success was not always easy for Trump or his businesses. The Trump Organization famously revealed it was $5 billion in the hole in 1990, with as much as $1 billion guaranteed by Donald personally. The business survived thanks to a combination bailout / deferment by more than 70 banks. Many point to the 1988 purchase of the Taj Mahal Casino as the major instigator in the Trump debt cycle. There is some truth in this, particularly after Trump unsuccessfully tried to finance the construction of sister casinos in 1989 through mostly junk bonds.
The Trump bailout package allowed him to take out second and third mortgages on most of his properties. Leverage became a common theme for Mr. Trump, who notoriously dealt with bankruptcy four times. Trump used the extra rope from his lenders to shore up debt, build up his rents and purchase other enterprises, including more casinos.
1995 and the Trump Turnaround
The early 1990s were very difficult for The Trump Organization and for Donald's business prospects. In 1991, for example, Trump was forced to cede 50% ownership in the Taj Mahal to his bondholders in exchange for lower interest payments and extra deferments. Trump filed his first two corporate bankruptcies in 1991 and 1992.
Fortunes began to change in 1995. That year, Trump took the Trump Hotels &; Casino Resorts, Inc. public, eventually selling 13.25 million shares at $32.50 a share in 1996 for a tidy capital gain of $290 million over his original ownership stake. Later in 1995, Trump purchased the old Bank of Manhattan Trust building located on 40 Wall Street. Trump claims he bought the building for just $1 million, though this is likely an exaggeration.
The building was available at a discount; however, after another deal with Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos fell through, the U.S. government seized his assets, and the owners became desperate. This location is probably worth several hundred million dollars in 2015. Of course, it is best known as The Trump Building.
This was about the same time one of Trump's initial investments, the Grand Hyatt building that opened in 1980, became wildly successful. Trump quickly sold his stake back to Hyatt for a reported $140 million.
Trump and the Brand
If you want to understand Trump the billionaire, you have to look past Trump the real estate investor. You have to think of Trump as a brand name, just like Coca-Cola or Nike.
Over the course of his three-plus decades on top of The Trump Organization, Donald Trump has owned and part-owned more than 400 businesses, properties, books, television shows and trademarks; more than 270 of them include the name "Trump" in the title. He owns skyscrapers in New York, Chicago, Toronto, Fort Lauderdale and Honolulu that are each called some variation of Trump Tower.
Prior to the launch of his presidential bid in 2016, Trump ordered his campaign staff to buy more than 3,100 Web domains related to the name "Trump" so nobody could use them to demean his name.
On top of it all, Trump loves the spotlight. He knows more attention means higher brand recognition, and brand recognition is incredibly valuable. He got his start on TV with the WWE in the 1980s and never looked back, eventually starring in a reality TV show about his own business, "The Apprentice." He is primarily a media mogul and never shies away from controversy. Americans love entertainment, and they are willing to pay Donald Trump lots of money to entertain them.
The Bottom Line
It is technically accurate to describe Donald Trump as a "silver spoon" child of fortunate circumstance, but that misses the bigger point. From a strict financial perspective, Donald Trump understood the power of leverage and was undeterred by risk. From a marketing perspective, Trump understood the power of entertainment and an evolving American media scene, and it was this understanding that transformed a family real estate empire into a nationwide brand.