Earning vs. owning your way on the Forbes 400
November 20, 2011, 11:35 AM
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I was flipping through the Forbes 400 list of American billionaires recently, and I got to thinking about the relative balance of people who are the list because they own valuable things and people who are on the list because they've earned a lot of money. The Walton children are in the top 10 because they chose their dad wisely, so they are good examples of somebody who are on the list due to ownership. Consider Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who retired from Microsoft in the first half of the 1980s when he got Hodgkins Lymphoma. I remember press comments that nobody ever beats that cancer, but he was among the first to get the modern, highly effective treatment. So, he earned some of Microsoft's early success, but wasn't around for his powerhouse days, from which he benefited by ownership. 

Michael Dell would be an example of somebody who started a huge company out of a dorm room and has run it, on and off, since. But, still, if he retired today, how much money would he have in 10 years? Assuming he's hired good second tier managers, probably almost as much as if he worked another 10 years. So, most of his billions come from ownership.

Another way to look at this is in terms of being irreplaceable. We had this discussion with Steve Jobs and Apple. My guess is that he was pretty irreplaceable during it's ascent, but, hopefully for Apple stockholders, will be reasonably replaceable in the long run. But, the majority of Jobs's wealth came from owning Pixar, where he wasn't hugely valuable except in negotiating with Hollywood sharks. Jobs did an outstanding job of keeping John Lasseter and Company free to do their thing, but the Pixar people weren't sorry when Jobs got his job back at Apple and didn't have time anymore to drive them crazy.

Which billionaire is at the the extreme of a person who earned just about every penny by getting out there day after day and doing the job? Which one was utterly irreplaceable? Which Forbesian's future cash flow is most dependent upon not retiring, upon personal effort from now on? My guess would be a pretty famous name, so I'll vamp while you try to guess.

Whose earning power among billionaires is least dependent upon owning corporate entities where others do the work and most dependent upon doing the work herself?

Is that enough of a clue to who has personally earned the largest fraction of her billions?

Yup, that's right, Oprah. She made her $2.7 billion less by founding or inheriting a valuable company or making successful leveraged bets and more by getting out there everyday and doing her job. She is the brand and the brand is her.