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All billionaires are techies

Business leaders meet regularly to plan what is next

Listening to the noise that surrounded the publication of the 2018 Forbes World’s Billionaires, it’s easy to imagine that the world’s wealthiest people are all young techies.

When you examine the list a little closer however, you discover that this is far from being the case. Most are well over 50 years old and their sources of income vary widely. Look at Forbes top ten for example:

Top 10
Courtesy of: Forbes, The World’s Billionaires

BillionaireNet worth US$ billionAgeSource of wealth
Jeff Bezos11254Amazon
Bill Gates9062Microsoft
Warren Buffett8488Berkshire Hathaway
Bernard Arnault7269LVMH
Mark Zuckerberg7134Facebook
Amancio Ortega7082Zara
Carlos Slim Helu6778Telecoms
Charles Koch6082Koch Industries
David Koch6078Koch Industries
Larry Ellison58.574Oracle

Although Amazon uses technology to a high degree, you could argue that Jeff Bezos is a shopkeeper of a very large and sophisticated global superstore.

Mark Zuckerberg is both young and techie, but he does little to bring down the average age of the Forbes top 10, which is 70. And though Bill Gates, Zuckerberg and Larry Ellison made their wealth either by developing technology or exploiting it, the others have not and as you scan further down the list, some significant trends in wealth generation emerge.

LVMH—Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy—is a business that amounts to a collection of upmarket retail brands. Zara too is a well-known high street name. At numbers 14, 15 and 16 on Forbes List, three members of the same family, Jim, S. Robson and Alice Walton have a combined wealth totalling USD 138.6 billion. Their money derives from US retailer Wal-Mart.

At number 18, Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, with USD 42.2 billion is heiress to L’Oreal, the world’s largest cosmetics firm. Further down the list are Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, two members of the Mars confectionary dynasty and also two from the families associated with German automotive engineering powerhouse BMW. There are many other retail and retail related ultra-high net worth individuals on the list. Another very significant theme is that of inherited wealth.

Research from consultants PWC and bankers UBS estimates that:

USD2.4 trillion of billionaire wealth will be transferred in the next two decades as billionaires age, with a significant amount going to philanthropic causes.

David Batey, an Executive Director for Coutts Bank in Jersey, says

Family-owned businesses are hugely important to the global economy. Many families, but not all, will transfer their wealth and/or business successfully as they grapple with the complexities combined with a reluctance to discuss the subject.

Old money

So old money is still a very important feature of the ultra-wealthy landscape. Moreover, businesses such as Amazon, or Google could not have existed before the Internet.

Look back at Forbes’ 1987 list of wealthy Americans and although over 30 years has elapsed, some familiar names appear. Top of the bill is Sam Walton, worth USD8.7 billion, second is John Werner Kluge a media billionaire whose business empire morphed into the Fox TV network. Third is Ross Perot, sometime presidential hopeful and, by some definitions, a techie. His business interests included data handling company EDS, a big investment in Steve Jobs before his second coming at Apple and Perot Systems which he sold to Dell. Behind him appears David Packard of HP. The youngest of these was Perot, then aged 57 while the other three were all 73 or older.

As you scan down the 1987 list Warren Buffett is in ninth place. Then, as now, the sources of wealth of many others spreads across a range of industries including media, brewing and drinks and real estate. Interestingly, one William Henry Gates III ranks as 29th richest; his source of wealth is described as “high technology.”

Global reach

What has changed—and this is a real inspiration—is that several new ultra wealthy have leveraged the global reach that new technology has enabled; think Bezos, Zuckerberg and Alphabet (Google) entrepreneurs Larry Page and Sergey Brin (numbers 12 and 13 on the Forbes list).

Consider this: John Davison Rockefeller, who, at his death was reportedly worth 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product of the USA, USD300 billion in today’s money, derived his wealth from building a network of pipelines and refineries that controlled access to ninety percent of the American oil market. Imagine if his empire had been as widespread as those of Apple, Microsoft or Google who dominate access to the Internet for many consumers around the world.

Today’s entrepreneurs do not have to be techies nor young, but they have at their disposal incredibly powerful technologies with global reach if they can harness them. Technology has been democratised. Though they may not inherit great wealth like many of today’s ultra-wealthy, with the right proposition, entrepreneurs can reach out across the globe and generate great wealth of their own.

Five pieces of wealth wisdom

Forbes lists 2,124 people with wealth of USD1 billion or more. Looking through the list we can distil lessons that may inspire our readers:

  1. You need not be a techie and nor young to become a billionaire, though some are.
  2. Great wealth can be generated from across a wide spectrum of activities.
  3. Billionaires generate their wealth all over the world, not just in North America or Europe.
  4. Age can matter. It helps if you’ve had many years over which to accumulate wealth.
  5. Many UHNWIs did not generate wealth themselves but inherited it because there is one great truth where wealth is concerned: you can’t take it with you.