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Have you ever wondered who the richest man in town is? W. Randall Jones has. The former magazine executive found himself in a country club near his hometown of Carrollton, Ga., one day when someone he was with pointed out a man at another table and said: "See him? He's the richest man in town."
That got Jones thinking. What his friend did is what people have been doing for millennia: pointing out the richest man in town. Sometimes people just want to know out of curiosity; other times it's because they think such proximity to wealth might present an opportunity. And, of course, the scale of the wealth in question might vary widely. What might pass for rich in a small town in Georgia may seem like a rounding error when compared with the net worth of billionaires such as Microsoft (MSFT) founder Bill Gates or Berkshire Hathaway's (BRKA) Warren Buffett.
So Jones got out a map and began identifying the largest metro areas in the U.S., then set out on a two-year search to find out who the richest men were. He spent more than two years interviewing local business editors, and business and community leaders in 100 towns across America in an effort to uncover their wealthiest citizens. In addition, he and a team of researchers combed through all available public data, including SEC filings, LexisNexis, EDGAR, and newspaper and magazine accounts. He even "Zillowed" their homes to determine their valuations.
Some of these individuals, like Gates, were well-known. His $40 billion fortune has established him as the richest man in Seattle, if not the world, for more than a decade. But what about the richest man in Spokane, Washington State's second-biggest city? According to Jones, it is Harlan D. Douglass, the largest real estate developer in town, who also sits on the board of Northwest Bank (NBCT) and invests in local companies such as Eagle Hardware & Garden. Bet you didn't know that.
In his new book The Richest Man in Town (Business Plus, 2009), Jones has come up with a list of the 100 richest people by town in the largest cities in almost every state in the U.S. "The media in general and the business press in particular is guilty of focusing too much on New York or San Francisco," says Jones. "There are success stories everywhere. I wanted to paint a true portrait of American wealth."
It is important to point out that these are not the richest people in the U.S. Jones only picked the wealthiest individual in the biggest towns. If you were the second-richest person in town, you didn't make the cut.
Despite the title, there are women on Jones' list, too. Women such as Boulder, Colo.'s Judi Paul, the co-founder of Renaissance Learning (RLRN), and Indianapolis' "time-share queen" Christell DeHaan, the founder of Resort Condominiums International, the largest vacation exchange company in the world. (Jones explains that his editor thought the title The Richest Person in Town, while more accurate, wouldn't have the same punch.)
According to Jones, the average Richest Man in Town (RMITs, as he calls them) has a net worth of more than $3.5 billion, and 50 of the 100 people he identified were billionaires when his book went to the printers. He has a few other interesting facts:
The total wealth of America's RMITs is $355 billion.
These 100 people employ more than 91% of Americans.
All of the fortunes are self-made.
Only one of them is a professional manager as opposed to a company founder.
Less than 10% of them have taken their company public.
Eighty-one percent of RMITs are doing business in their hometown.
Now, of course, like everyone else, many of the RMITs aren't as rich as they used to be—and some of them have seen their assets shrink even since the book went to press. Many RMITs made their fortunes in the real estate and auto industries, two sectors that have been especially battered. Others, even those who have been conservative with their investments, have seen their net worth diminish. Others, like Warren Buffett and Sioux Falls (S.D.) investor Denny Sanford, who owns subprime credit-card giant Premier Bankcard, have given large chunks of their wealth to charity and philanthropic organizations. Sanford even vowed that he wanted to die broke and has already spent much of what was once a $3 billion fortune.
But Jones wasn't interested only in identifying these 100 RMITs. He also wanted to find the common ground among them and how their stories could inspire others to follow in their footsteps. "I want to show people not only who the richest people are, but how they can achieve wealth, too. I believe it's good to be rich."
He outlines these principles in what he calls the Twelve Commandments of Wealth—many of which should be fairly obvious to any aspiring entrepreneur. These include such notions as the importance of finding your true calling, waking up early, and learning how to succeed through failure. But there are also some others that might not be so obvious, such as never retiring. "These are men and women who love what they do," says Jones. "Even if they wind up moving on from the company they started, they just get involved in new opportunities, whether it's philanthropy or a new startup. These people just can't stop."
As Wichita multibillionaire Phil Ruffin says: "Retirement? Hell no. You just can't do it. Why would you ever retire when you're living large and having this much fun?" Considering that the 74-year-old real estate developer and good friend of Donald Trump just married a 26-year-old former Miss Ukraine, he may have a point.
Click here to see the richest men (and women) in 100 of America's largest cities.