Retired, owner of metals company
“Money is independence, freedom, security. But it ain’t happiness. ”
He owned a metals company that, he says, “manufactures brass and bronze alloys, which may mean nothing to you, but the bronze lions in front of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas are made out of our metal. 80,000 pounds of bronze. They’re actually real. Everybody thinks they’re fake.
The Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial, the Harry Caray sculpture at Wrigley Field, all of that is made out of bronze that we made. But mostly we made brass and bronze for basically the plumbing industry and the sculpture industry. We also built a substantial operation refining precious metals.
“It’s a shrinking market because it went offshore. First of all, it was replaced by plastic. Used to be copper tubing, now plastic tubing. Then stainless steel, then offshore.
“I gradually bought out my sister and brother and my father, so the company was owned by the employees and myself, which was always my dream. I wanted the employees to own the company, so the employees ended up owning about 50% of the company, and I owned about 50%. Now I’m gone, as of 2007, and it’s 100% employee-owned, and it’s been very successful since I left it, which makes me very happy. It’s been a good business. I’m happy with it.”
Les talks here about his relationship with money which began in his youth with his passion to have a job and to work, a passion that drove him all through his life, and continues even in retirement.
I sold my interest in my business in 2007, fortunately just before the economy collapsed. People say I had good timing, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. So I left a formal, structured working environment and went on to one of my interests, which was flying. Earned my private pilot’s license. I was 68. I was told I was a little on the long tooth. But I did that. I really loved it. I did that and pursued some of my other interests. Wine growing, grape growing, learning to make wine and all that sort of thing. Found about nine months ago or so, I really was a bit lost, was not being stimulated intellectually enough, nor emotionally.
The first thing I did to remedy that discomfort or dislocation in my life was something I had been doing informally for awhile. I began assisting the gentleman who manages the company that manages my money. After many years managing a manufacturing company, I can think fairly reasonably strategically and tactically, so I helped him get his business going, and now I’ve been appointed to his advisory board. I’ve assisted him in raising funds, which he then manages for people. I’ve actually been fairly successful at it. I shocked myself, but I brought in somewhere around 100 million dollars for him to manage. He can’t believe it, nor can I, but I did it. So.
I grew up in Wilmette, Illinois; I would say middle class, middle to slightly upper middle class. And we lived in a nice, middle class bungalow. I clearly didn’t have to work as a youth, but I got a job at 12, working in a florist wrapping packages, and my parents were just shocked. They said, “Why did you go get that job? You don’t have to work, you can play with your friends, you can do sports, you can do school.” I said, “Well I want a job. It makes me feel good to have a job.” Just working makes me feel good.
Would your parents have preferred that you didn’t work?
Yes. They grew up, I can’t say poor, but their parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. One of them, my father’s mother was actually born in the United States, but the others were from Eastern Europe. And they came here with virtually no money and established a life, and from their perspective, the idea was to have enough money so you didn’t worry about where your next meal was coming from and had some — not freedom to not work, but flexibility in whether you worked or not. My parents moved to Wilmette from the west side of Chicago in 1944 and were looking toward a middle to slightly upper middle class life there, so when their 12-year-old son went to work, it was like, What’s he doing?
But I loved it. They treated me like a man at work; they treated me like an adult, and they paid me money and I worked hard. I’ve always worked very hard because it makes me feel good. I’m not doing it for any other reason. Makes me feel good. And I believe that if you’re going to sweep a floor, you better sweep a floor better than anybody ever swept that floor. And so they liked me. I was always available to them. I would come home at 6:00 and 7:00 at night if they had a big wedding or something. My parents were just shocked.
What were your career aspirations?
I had no idea. I knew I didn’t want to go to work for the family business, that was for sure. That was a come-down, meant I couldn’t take care of myself. I read a book called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and it was about advertising. I said, “Gee. I think I’d like to do that.” I interviewed at probably 30-40 advertising agencies in Chicago and got one job offer. One. Actually a couple of others, but one important one, and that was Leo Burnet, which was the best firm in the city, one of the best in the country. And so I joined Leo Burnet in 1962, as a trainee, and ended up managing the Green Giant frozen vegetable account. I worked there about eight years.
I loved Leo Burnet. Had a terrible time leaving. But I got a lot of pressure from my family in 1969. So I joined the family business, and it was a terrible mistake because I was from the “wrong side of the family,” in the sense that though we had the majority of shares or slightly more than the other family, my dad played second fiddle to his brother. I had a cousin who was there, and the message was I was going to play second fiddle to him for the rest of my life. He was a difficult character. It was not a real good situation.
So I built a new division for the company that became two or three times larger than the base company. Began buying out the family in 1984. And they fought me at every turn because I was from the wrong quarter. It was supposed to come from the other family, not my father’s family. And it was a very painful political situation. Family businesses have royalty in them, and royalty is the family.
Was making a lot of money an aspiration of yours?
It became an aspiration. I think it was lurking near all the time, from the time I was 12 and went to work. I would say I got a taste for the idea that I could really make a lot of money, much to my surprise, in, I would say, my 40’s. Where all of a sudden, this company that I was running was making humongous amounts of money, and I got to have a piece of it.
I realized, Whoa! All of a sudden there was hundreds of thousands of dollars that we could take as bonuses and give hundreds of thousands of dollars to our employees. It was just amazing. It just happened, sort of. It was sort of scary. We didn’t even understand what we had done. We had been very successful and made all this money and then we were going to get part of it.
I was always very big on sharing it. I know this is very self-serving to say, but I was always very generous with my employees. I love to share money with my employees. And I love to see my friends do well. I’m very competitive, but I don’t derive pleasure from beating somebody else, you know? I don’t want to put anybody out of business. I want my competitors to be rich and successful, too. Not that I’m any moral paragon, but you know.
How did it change your life?
Initially it didn’t. Initially it made me work harder. I wanted to build the company. I had no delusions of being a big guy, big rich guy. That didn’t play in there. So much of life is, we don’t really know what we’re doing. You’re just sort of moving ahead, you know what I mean? But when I first started to make chunks of money, I disciplined myself and did not change my lifestyle. I started doing a lot of investing. Every year, I took my whole bonus and invested it. Usually with friends who were doing businesses and that sort of thing, so we never significantly changed our life because of the money, in terms of our physical setting.
You know, it all doesn’t mean much. It really doesn’t. Every time you reach a milestone and accomplish something, to me it just always represented an opportunity to do more. I never felt self-satisfied that now I have this. Be a little self-satisfied? That doesn’t work in my mental system. As I spent more time in business, my taste for, my hunger for, my drive to make a lot of money grew.
However, it was not my prime goal. My prime goal was to work hard and be successful. Everybody in my family thinks I was focused on the money, but it was more to manage and grow a successful business. To be in a successful business venture. For some reason, I never related directly to the money, because I quickly found out, if I had periods where I made a lot of money, it didn’t increase the pleasure quotient in my life significantly. What really increased the pleasure quotient was that I had a successful business where people worked hard.
I was never a big spender. I think I was a worrier about having enough money. Sometimes I worry that I will lose it, that I won’t have enough. I’m not a great detailed budget person, and so I worry that maybe I’m outspending my ability to earn. I want to have enough money when I reach that age where I need people to assist me, that I can support myself financially. So I worry that I won’t have enough for that. But I can’t say it’s a big anxiety. But it is a concern.
What do you like to spend money on?
I’m actually going to treat myself. I bought a Lotus, I’ve ordered a Lotus. It’s an $80,000 car; it’s not like a Ferrari or anything like that. But I have that coming next month; I’ve always liked sports cars. Over the years, I have bought them and sold them. Usually they cost me very little, because when I sell them, I sell them for very near what I bought them at. I bought a Ferrari in 1987; I think I spent $57,000, and my wife was just horrified. I sold it two years later for $55,000, and I said, well $2,000 for two years of fun was not bad.
I travel a lot. Love traveling. I do buy myself good wine every once in awhile. I’m a wine collector. But good wine, $1,200. I’ll buy a $100 bottle, a case of $100 bottles. I don’t know, once in awhile I buy a few shirts. You know? I like the idea that I can buy more than one shirt at a time. My wife said, “Don’t bring anymore shirts home.” As you get older, I don’t know, you seem to accumulate all these clothes.
Money is independence, freedom, security. But it ain’t happiness. That I can tell you. Just having the money in my pocket does not create happiness. What creates happiness is a pleasant, healthy life where you can take care of yourself, help those around you. Money enhances the ability to do that, so that’s important.
I want to wish you success, Mark, in whatever success means. I don’t quite know. I think if we knew what success meant, we might have the key to life. But I find in the end, none of it has a great deal of substantive or permanent meaning other than it gives me something productive and meaningful to do, and allows me to be supportive of my children.
See also my interview with his daughter, Jeanne Nolan who, in her youth, eschewed her father’s wealth and moved to an organic farm for 17 years.