Shaking the soft, but not limp hand of a billionaire, my first thought was, “So this is how the hand of a billionaire
feels.” A hand capable of doing immense things by means of writing checks. A hand that could casually write a check
for more than I will earn in my entire strenuous life. I suppose there was a body and a mind attached to the hand, but they
didn’t make much of an impression. The wife of the hand remarked that they were pursued endlessly to serve on the board
of every imaginable worthy cause.
We had other wealthy customers nearby, even on the same block, but at their
stratospheric level other concerns materialize, beyond luxury. The Ten-Millionaires might come and go freely, as do their
teenagers, servants, tradesmen, delivery people and personal trainers. Lots of people are always coming and going at the homes
of the rich. But when your wealth is astronomical, your name and face become well-known, and security is a concern. Children
could be kidnapped, you could be targeted by someone ruined by one of your companies, a terrorist, crazies wanting to kill
someone famous. When arriving home you slow a few blocks away and call a number, and a security man steps out into the driveway
as the garage door opens.
Twenty-four hour armed security requires three shifts. And a driver licensed to carry
a weapon is paid two or three times as much as an ordinary chauffeur. A household with this kind of staff needs a manager,
and there might also be personal assistants and secretaries. And below that servants, a cook, cleaners, nannies. And of course
at least several other residences. Definitely an apartment in New York -- the capital of the world. And a country place, which
could be nearby or on another continent.
An airplane broker told me that in selling large private jets, your customers
might be in San Francisco, Shanghai or Dubai, but distance does not exist for them. And there is another way of thinking about
wealth -- it erases distance. If I want to go to New York I need to shop for tickets by price and availability, but if I had
a jet my assistant would arrange to have it ready for takeoff. When you’re waiting in your socks to be patted down or
body scanned naked, hoping security won’t confiscate your nail clippers, or that a 300 pound woman won’t be overflowing
the middle seat, think of the plutocrats arriving at the private terminal, driven right to their aircraft and welcomed aboard
with nine suitcases, kids, nannies, dogs, guns, drugs, as they please.
There were other customers whose fortunes
were in the billions range, but I can’t say I’ve shaken any of their hands. I wondered at what point in accumulating
wealth one must acquire a layer of household management to deal with folks like me. Ten million wouldn’t be enough,
not in this very expensive city, but I’d imagine ten times that definitely would. At a hundred times ten million you’re
a single billionaire. That would be nothing in Zimbabwe, where they print 100 trillion dollar bills, but here it’s serious
money. At a singleton billion, which is not a very big billionaire, the managers have assistants, perhaps even the assistants
have assistants. Households begin to resemble corporate structures.
Several of my clients did not allow anything
at all to be done to their homes without a full convocation of all parties. There would be an architect, an interior designer,
a general contractor, and any subcontractors who would be touching anything. (Note: If there was a lawsuit you would also
see the same gathering for the mediation and/or trial.) I would assume that everyone was billing for their time, retail, holiday
rate, high season. On one job there was a weekly meeting for the duration, and it was lengthy and far away, but we kindly
charged only for our time and one way travel. Sometimes I was asked if it was possible to do something -- to which I would
always answer that of course it was possible, anything is possible, it’s only a matter of money. Just kidding, I wouldn’t
actually say the part about the money, but we’d all be thinking it.
Once a famous client genially presided
over the meeting, a living legend in his field, which had something to do with most of the major corporations of America.
This was kid gloves, a famous house designed by a famous architect with famous murals, the whole package sacred beyond imagining.
The architect asked me for a ballpark notion of how much it might cost to replace all the pipes without the least damage to
one rare molding or fresco. I replied (truthfully) that I had absolutely no idea, but that it might possibly be really quite
a lot (upward glance). At these words the architect and the general contractor began running head tapes of their percentages
and markups. You may have heard somewhere that architects, designers and general contractors charge either flat fees, hourly
rates or percentages of the total, but I’ve seen some with true chutzpah who charge theme and variations.
Conceptually, the plumbing budget for a job like this would be roughly equivalent to the current average price of a home
in Iowa. Not so much, really, when you consider that the client’s cars cost about the same, or their travel budget for
the year, or the cost of their household help, their boat, or the insurance on their furnishings and art. Lay out their annual
budget on the accountant’s spreadsheet and you might see a few line items larger than the average cost of an American
home. Very wealthy people often have their moolah distributed by accounting firms, or an office in their corporaton, and for
good reason. Not just to save them the bother of writing checks, but because they aren’t stupid, and they know that
when money is being handled by the truckload, they would be robbed blind if it wasn’t being watched by professionals
who just might receive visits from outside auditors.
Having made a small specialty, an entree on our menu of services,
of pandering to the needs of the uber-rich, I came to some highly personal conclusions about the nature of money. Just as
Einstein taught us that the speed and distance traveled by any object in motion is entirely relative to the position of the
observer, so the value of money is entirely relative to the position of the spender. Disclaimer: I know nothing about economics,
because I am merely the simple plumber that Einstein wished he had become.
Money is a highly variable substance
-- it comes in denominations, which would seem to establish precise values. A hundred dollars is a hundred dollars, right?
Wrong. The value of a C-Note is entirely a function of how many you have on hand. Depending, the C-Note could represent your
wine budget for dinner tonight, your wine budget for the month, the year, or for the rest of your life. I thought that wealthy
people were frivolous in swilling hundred dollar bottles of wine, while I sensibly drank ten dollar bottles. One day it occured
to me that I was frivolous drinking ten dollar wine, not my wealthy customers, because taking into account the real value
of money, mine were the more expensive bottles. The hundred dollar bottles might actually cost the same if my customer had
only ten times my assets, but if they had a hundred, let alone a thousand or ten thousand times my assets, their C-Note bottles
would essentially be free. That’s relativity for you.
Mr. X, whose home had almost as many rooms as our
country has had presidents, was not wanton in spending a hundred grand on walnut paneling for his library, it was I who was
a wastrel for bringing home a new toaster, when the old one worked perfectly well with a little jiggling to get the toast
up. Tip O’Neill said, regarding health care, that all politics are personal. To this, I add that regarding your financial
health, all economics are also personal.
If you have the money, anything that can be dreamed or designed is possible,
the skills exist. There are carpenters who can build magical floating staircases, tilesetters who can create breathtaking
murals out of tiny glass tiles, plaster workers who can duplicate elaborate Victorian crown moldings. Amazing work is done
in mansions, in boats, planes, even the tour buses of performers. I’ve seen a few secret rooms -- but if I’ve
seen them, I guess they aren’t secret any more. And whims like automatic skylight washers, 24 telephone lines, a 15
To get these jobs I dealt with the unholy trinity of architects, designers and general contractors.
Architecture is, in most cases, a very difficult business. I often dealt with architects who seemed to have
very few jobs. And I knew others who never developed a clientele but ended up working for contractors, or as carpenters or
property managers. Not a great return on eight years of expensive education and three more as a low-paid intern. But the small
minority who were well-established and had plenty of work did very well financially. And there is a prestige element in architecture
that keeps people at it even when it is a struggle. It’s still somewhat of a gentleman’s profession. Architects
are artists, and poets, and tyrants, and they can be pretentious bullies unwilling to take responsibility for their mistakes.
But we courted them because they were at the top of the food chain, typically selecting the general contractor who would get
the job. And their errors and omissions were sometimes very profitable for us.
Many of the designers also struggled,
and although they made a big deal of their certifications and professional memberships, it really isn’t hard to become
a designer. They range from part-time housewife “decorators” to high-powered designers capable of taking
on most of the functions of an architect or general contractor for any work done inside the structure. Successful designers
can make tremendous amounts of money because their fees and markups are very high, while they often have very little overhead.
Designers compete more on personality than anything else -- being charming, making social connections easily, and working
well with difficult and demanding clients. When they had problems it usually seemed to be more about clashes of personality
than the quality of their work. In fact, many designers rarely designed anything, but spent most of their time shopping with
their clients, and meeting with painters and other trades to informally work out what the customer wanted, or got talked into
thinking she wanted. As with architects, there are a lot of them, but a small minority get most of the plum jobs.
General contractors face ferocious competition for high-end clients because there are always more of them than any
kind of specialty contractor. When I worked for the state license board I discovered that the typical contractor held a general
contractors license and was inactive and out of business. I held licenses in four trades and the general contractor’s
license was by far the easiest to get. A general contractor I regarded as fairly successful in high-end work said he only
expected to nail a very profitable job every two or three years. In between he took whatever he could get.
generals take on the most risk and overhead, not only for their own work, but they can take the hit for the mistakes of the
architect or subcontractors. Only a very few manage to gain the reputation and critical mass needed to sustain a flow of profitable
work, and even these few often find themselves in dangerous situations. We always thought someone had to be insane to become
a general contractor. As with architects and designers, a small minority control most of the very high-end residential work,
but as near as I could tell, even these companies were often not very profitable for the owners, especially considering the
risks they took.
I’ll end this brief tour of high-end residential work with a job that I recall almost as
a Blakean vision. A brilliant (and very successful) inventor conjured an 18th century English cottage nestled into a hollow
on the side of a mountain. It had to look as if it had been there for hundreds of years. Cost was not an issue, he just wanted
what he wanted for his family. Yes, you can move mountains. But first the was the matter of shaping the landscape. It took
a lot of very heavy equipment. And a lot of very heavy building, zoning and environmental permits. Surveyors, giant bulldozers,
graders, dump trucks, water trucks. A gigantic vibratory compacter shook the earth. Money flowed like a mountain stream down
to the bank of the engineering contractor. Soon followed by an army of masons, carpenters, sheet metal workers, landscapers,
and a plethora of other trades over the next year. And did he achieve his vision of an England that probably never existed?
Yes! And did he spend millions of dollars? Yes, but to these modestly grateful people, having made so much money by their
intelligence and enterprise, the cost was a mere detail. Money is, as I said, entirely relative.