I always get nervous when this issue of Forbes magazine comes in. It’s the annual America’s Richest Families edition.
I open to the special section gingerly, because I never know if they’ve spelled my name right or used an old picture that makes me look overweight. Last year, I offered to let the photographer use my high school yearbook photo, but she wanted something more current. I told the editor that if they’re not going to use the right picture, they can leave me off the list completely.
Sure enough, the cover family had been there before. If Forbes had been around 150 years ago, the Mellon family would have been near the top of their list every year.
The Mellons are not the wealthiest family on the list, but they win the award for longevity. The Mellon family came to America from Ireland in 1818, and, ironically, settled in the town of Poverty, Pa. Real estate, banking, oil – Gulf Oil – coal, glass, with one strategy: accumulate wealth and preserve it. It worked. Today they have a net worth of $12 billion.
But this “old-money” family, the Mellons, are “only” 19th on the wealth list. The first prize goes to – no surprise – the Walton family. If the Mellons’ $12 billion seems like a lot (what do I mean – “seems?”), the Walton family’s wealth of $152 billion could swallow half the known world. The Waltons’ wealth does not go back to the Civil War, just to 1962, the year after I graduated from high school.
Ah, the time I wasted getting a college degree when I could have founded a fast food empire, or something.
In second place on the Forbes billionaire list is a name that’s not. They use it in their ads and rallies, and you can bet the name will come up at this party’s political convention. I’m talking about the Koch brothers, the owners of the oil-refining company that has become America’s second-largest family owned company. The family has accumulated industries with a net worth of about $90 billion.
Take a guess: Is it a surprise that oil refining was a quicker route to vast wealth than candy? We’re talking about Mars, which is the actual family name, and happens to fit easily on the candy bars, Uncle Ben’s Rice and Whiskas pet food. The Mars company was founded in 1911, and has grown to a $60 billion food empire. Wait – should we call M&M’s a “food”?
What definitely is not a food is the product that made the Gallo brothers billionaires 10 times over. You remember Ernest and Julio, of course, who founded their eponymous company in Modesto in 1933. At this point, I have to throw in an almost meaningless anecdote: I would guess it was 10 or 12 years ago when my wife Clare and I attended a fundraising dinner for Rep. Frank Riggs. Who should be sitting – unaccompanied – to Clare’s right, but Ernest Gallo? He was very friendly, and Clare flirted with – I mean talked to – him throughout the dinner. I have no doubt that until he died, Mr. Gallo talked about the “sparkling” couple he sat next to that night.
But wait; there’s more. It was maybe 15 years ago that Clare and I were dining at a modest restaurant in Lucerne, Switzerland, and who was sitting at a long table right next to us? It was the Busch family or at least part of it – today No. 17 on the billionaire’s list. Can you guess what kind of beer they were drinking?
Bud Stevenson, a retired stockbroker, lives in Fairfield. Reach him at [email protected]