How Did Donald Trump Get So Rich?

An exploration of Donald Trump's wealth.

John Maxfield
John Maxfield and Kristine Harjes
Aug 7, 2015 at 12:00PM

Ask anyone who Donald Trump is and each person will have their own interpretation or anecdote about the billionaire real estate developer, media personality, and, most recently, presidential candidate.

Given the latter, The Motley Fool is diving in head first to get the full story about how Trump amassed his fortune. Find out where Donald Trump got his start, and how he worked his way to the top with no intention of stopping. 

A full transcript follows the video.

Kristine Harjes: How did Donald Trump get so rich? This is Industry Focus.

Hey, everyone! Welcome to Industry Focus, financial edition. I'm Kristine Harjes and I've got John Maxfield on the line with me as usual. I'm very excited to welcome Foolish financial analyst, Gaby Lapera, to the show. Gaby, glad to have you here.

Gaby Lapera: Really excited to be here.

Harjes: We've got an awesome episode for you guys today as we dig into the wonderfully interesting man that is Donald Trump. Just to be clear from the start, we wanted to do this episode form a totally non-partisan stance and give a really objective look at who this man is, what his history is, and how he's accomplished everything that he has.

As you're listening, keep in mind that even though each of us has our own opinions about the political side of Trump, we're doing our best to remove that form the equation and focus on Trump from a business perspective. Even though I usually save this for the end of the episode I'll remind our listeners now. Along the line of disclaimers, any stocks that are mentioned in the episode could be in mine, or John's, or Gaby's personal portfolios and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against them.

As always, do your own research. Don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. With that, let's dive right in. How did the Trump name come to be what it is today?

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John Maxfield: If you look back in the Trump family history there are three really important pieces. The first is the great depression when Fred Trump, Donald Trump's father, started building large developments of single family homes in the Brooklyn area.

Harjes: This guy ended up being considered the Henry Ford of home building, right?

Maxfield: That's exactly right. He built a lot of homes for the mass consumer. That's how he really broke in. The second piece was during WWII when the government shifted a lot of our resources to support the military. Fred Trump then went and built developments around military bases. Then the third really important piece was a post WWII housing boom in multifamily real estate in particular -- namely apartment complexes -- that Fred Trump really contributed to.

If you're looking at the seeds of the Trump fortune that is really where it originally came from.

Harjes: I'd like to dig into each of those seeds and figure out how they sprouted, to continue that metaphor. Going back to the multi-block areas in Brooklyn that Fred Trump was making, these were really cookie cutter houses, slight differences in the front; how did they end up becoming so profitable?

Maxfield: Some really important context about developers and development projects is, on the scale of guys like Fred Trump and Donald Trump do; they're really speculative endeavors. You could get halfway through a huge construction project and a recession comes along. If that project is being financed by banks and the developer defaults, those banks lose all their money.

Banks are really aware of that and governments are too. The governments are in this position where they want their neighborhoods to be developed, but the big developers cannot get the financing to get the job done. Then what the governments do is they come in and they provide insurance on the loans for both the acquisition of the property and the development of the property.

Better than anything else, one of the things that Fred Trump was really good at was figuring out how to structure those deals and to work the political process to make it happen.

Harjes: One of the ways that he really got a boost was after the great depression with the new deal when the federal housing administration came in with this purpose of reigniting the growth of the U.S. housing industry. So they came in and guaranteed mortgages now. That takes a lot of risk out of the equation.

Maxfield: That's exactly right. Now, Fred Trump could go in to any bank that's potentially interested in funding his project and say "You take no risk by supporting my project." Here's where we get into a different nature of conduct. In my analysis after reading biographies of the Trump family and how they grew up around development projects and cities, is that developers all have to use the political process in this regard.

So they go to the FHA and say they need them to guarantee X amount of mortgages on this property and that makes the market profitable to lenders. Then what happens is the lenders will give all this money to the developer. Say they give the developer $11 million to develop a property. I'm making these numbers up, but the developer will then take a $4 million kickback in profits immediately and then build the property with the remainder.

That's the grey area where, in order to make a profit, developers negotiate in that regard.

Harjes: This family was really good at that. One of the other ways they're able to leverage this relationship they had was building these multi-family developments right near all the military bases and naval bases around the country in WWII.

Maxfield: Right. The reason this matters so much for the Trump family is because it took Fred Trump from building these large developments of single family, cookie cutter homes, and it took him into the multi-family market. They were large buildings, and the Trumps would then get rental income from these buildings as opposed to selling off each of the lots.

Then if you look at Donald Trump, he's not a single family home builder. He builds large projects. I think, from reading the history of the Trump family; that's where he got that idea for projects of that scale.

Harjes: He comes in, sees his father's great success and gets the idea to go over into Manhattan an use that expertise that they had built up to move into a more upscale market.

Maxfield: Exactly. If you want to look at the contribution that Donald Trump made to the Trump family -- which is very significant -- Donald Trump is not just somebody who rode on his father's coat tails. Certainly, his father positioned him to succeed to the extent that he did, but Donald Trump was the one who then took it and ran with it.

What Donald Trump did was, as opposed to his father who moved into the multi-family market after WWII he still focused on that Brooklyn area, Coney Island area, Queens area for his projects; what Donald Trump's brilliant vision was to take that model and apply it to luxury developments as opposed to your middle income and low income developments. Then he took it to Manhattan, across the river.

Harjes: How he did this at first was with the Commodore Hotel, which was named after Cornelius "The Commodore" Vanderbilt. This hotel was losing a ton of money, it got really seedy really quickly. Trump sees this and he sees how many people are flowing through the hotel and has the vision of increasing the occupancy rate.

He starts working with the New York government trying to figure out how to provide him with the funding and financial covering so he could get the financing he would need to develop this property. This all ends up working out pretty well. John, can you give us a bit more information about the deal he worked out with them?

Maxfield: Sure. Just to give some context, this was in the mid-1970s. The mid-1970s there was a number of rolling recessions in the United States, and New York City in particular got caught in one of those. When that happened its funding dried up. It didn't have a lot of options to try and promote quality developments in Manhattan and the other bureaus.

What happened was, a lot of these neighborhoods fell into disrepair. The Commodore Hotel was one of them. At the time, The Commodore Hotel's occupancy rate was something like 50%. So half the hotel was filled and it had become a really seedy hangout place with really seedy and commercial renters in those first floor spaces in the bottom of the hotel.

What Donald Trump saw was if we can bring this hotel up to the next level it will make a lot of money. He just needed financing. So what he did is went to the city and the city worked out a deal to where they wouldn't have to put up the money upfront, but they gave him a huge tax abatement, which then made the property palpitable to lenders.

Basically, what they said was "You don't have to pay taxes on this property for X amount of years." I think I read that it was 50 years, but I don't remember. The significance of that was, if the hotel grossed $9 million income, they would have to pay $2 million in property taxes. That wiped out about 25% of what would otherwise be expenses that transformed it into profit. That's the reason Donald Trump was then able to get the financing to complete that project.

Harjes: That's huge. That 25% cushion means you could come in and totally undercut your competition on price, and you've got a really profitable operation which is the Grand Hyatt.

Maxfield: That's exactly right. It's a beautiful hotel. Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he's done an amazing job with some of his properties. Specifically the ones in Manhattan between Trump Tower and Commodore Hotel.

Harjes: Aside from Manhattan he moves on to Atlantic City. Gaby, do you want to talk to us a bit about some of the properties that he's worked with there?

Lapera: Trump has worked with all sorts of different properties in Atlantic City. Of course, he's most famous for his casinos. He's also an owner of a lot of golf courses all over the world as well. That's part of the image he's trying to cultivate.

Harjes: I heard he has quite the golf game, too.

Lapera: Yes. That is speculative, so we'll stay away from that.

Maxfield: Everybody's golf game is speculative.

Harjes: That's a great point.

Maxfield: I golfed yesterday. I can tell you that firsthand.

Harjes: I'm fantastic. I'm particularly good at the mini version of golf.

Lapera: One of the things that Donald Trump really works to do with all these businesses that are luxury businesses is he's attempting to build a brand for himself. When I say "attempting", he has built a brand for himself. The actual value of that brand is up for debate depending on who you ask.

Harjes: That's a huge question surround him; what is this guy worth? What is his brand worth? What are some of the figures that have been thrown out there?

Lapera: It's crazy. Back in the earlier 2000s there was a journalist named Tim O'Brien who pegged Donald Trump's net worth to be between $150 and $250 million. Donald strenuously objected to that and sued him twice. There's no real output from that. Recently Donald Trump has announced that he intends to run for the presidency and when you do that you have to declare your financial resources.

Donald Trump has said that he is worth $9 billion. In his words "I'm really rich."

Harjes: There's no disputing the latter there. This guy is really rich. However, finding an exact number to backup that $9 billion has proven to be a bit problematic. You have all these others putting in different estimates.

Lapera: It's been difficult. One of the people who have been the most rigorous in attempting to ascertain exactly how much he has is Forbes. They're putting his network, right now, at $4.1 billion. That's still a lot of money. We're quibbling over $4.5 billion, but once you get past $1 billion does it really matter?

Harjes: This guy is a billionaire. He's very wealthy.

Maxfield: Let me ask Gaby a question. Gaby, from your interpretation of how Donald Trump is operating in a business capacity, is it your interpretation that he's focusing more on licensing that Trump brand as opposed to going back to his roots in developing or doing a celebrity apprentice show? It sounds like he doesn't have the opportunity to do that anymore.

Lapera: Absolutely. That's part of the reason his brand is so important to him. He's making the majority of his money right now from slapping his name on things and bringing in tenants using his persona.

That's definitely why he went after Tim O'Brien the first time because he said as a result of Tim O'Brien saying his net worth was lower than it was he lost out on two really big business deals. I believe one was a hotel near something important in New York. I can't remember exactly what it was.

Maxfield: The theory there must be that he's trying to sell these luxury golf courses, or hotels, or developments, and as a result of that it's important that people perceive me as extremely rich and they can associate richness with using these facilities. Is that how you perceive he looks at it?

Lapera: Absolutely. That is exactly how he's thinking about it. That's why he's constantly referring to himself as luxurious.

Harjes: There are a ton of Trump things out there that he's making money from. There's 515 different business where Trump lists himself as an executive. 276 of them have Trump in the name. Another 63 on top of that have a T in it somewhere that almost always stands for Trump. This is clearly a guy who's building this character and trying to associate with this luxurious, upscale personality.

Another way I didn't realize until I started doing research for this show was that he makes a lot of money through speaking fees. He made $1.75 million in speaking fees, just between May of 2014 and March of 2015. That's insane. I wish they would pay me that much to speak publicly.

Maxfield: Don't we all? Let me ask another question. The one thing that we've jumped over that's such a critical piece of Donald Trump's story -- and this is my understanding, not based on a lot of research since I didn't really look into this specific point in his life much -- was in the mid-1990s, it's my understanding that he was on the verge of going broke, or bankrupt. I wonder if you could...

Lapera: Several times.

Harjes: There's a split between the personal bankruptcy and the business bankruptcy.

Lapera: Which, Donald Trump would really like you to know. He never went personally bankrupt.

Harjes: We will emphasize that. He did get close, however. Particularly when the first of his businesses filed for bankruptcy. This was the Trump Taj Mahal. He acquired it with mounting debt and mostly through high interest junk bonds which, in 1991, ended up being brought to business bankruptcy.

Eventually he was able to turn the situation around and the Taj Mahal emerged from bankruptcy later in the year with Trump seeding about 50% of ownership to the bond holders in exchange for more favorable terms, lowered interest rates, more time to pay the debt off.

So he was able to negotiate his way out of that, but this is one of four different times that one of his businesses has filed for bankruptcy.

Lapera: Yeah. Most recently it was in 2009 with the Trump Entertainment Resorts. He filed for bankruptcy, he was leveraged up to the hill. This was during the global financial crisis and when the banks asked him to pay back his debt Trump said that there was a force major. That's basically an act of God occurring; the global financial crisis. I guess, arguably...

Harjes: French term, written into the contract.

Lapera: Instead of going all the way through with the lawsuit, the banks ended up settling with him. I suppose it must have been easier.

Maxfield: You know what they say about lending. If you owe your bank $1 million, your bank controls you, but if you owe your bank $100 million; you control your bank.

Lapera: That's fair.

Harjes: That makes a lot of sense. I think that points to the takeaway from this whole episode. Even though this is a guy whose name is recognized for a whole host of things from The Apprentice, to Miss Universe, or just for being a very strong personality; he's a really smart guy and he's had a lot of business success due to his ability to negotiate.

Lapera: To pivot, really.

Maxfield: Let me say, my takeaway is very similar to yours. When I went into this -- and we talked last week about covering this so I started reading about the Trump family -- it transformed Donald Trump in my head from this silly, toupee wearing caricature, into this really formidable, intelligent, savvy, ambitious businessman that has also had to do slightly unsavory things on the side to make these deals happen. They're the same things that every developer has to do.

He has just done better than most other people in his industry. It's just given me a much deeper appreciation, regardless of what people may or may not think about Donald Trump, particularly in this political season. It's given me a much better appreciation that this man does bring something to the table, certainly in a business capacity.

Harjes: He's not about to fade out of the spotlight anytime soon. Especially with this presidential run. Regardless of the man's public persona or our own personal opinions of him, one thing is definitely clear: this is a very smart, ambitious businessman and he's got a really interesting story behind him.

Gaby, John, I want to thank you guys so much for helping me tell this story today. Also, I want to throw out there to our listeners that Gaby is going to be working with us a bunch of episodes going forward and we're excited about that. We're looking forward to next time.