What Do You Give a Millionaire?
Real Gifts Come From Relationships
I had a very good, very successful, friend pass away last year. He was in his eighties when he died. I had no idea everything he had accomplished in his lifetime - in particular his military service. I did know he was a very good businessman, a good husband and father, and a nice guy. He always took time to listen to me as a young, greenhorn salesman. I'm pretty sure he liked me, and I respected him and what he had attained. His wealth was never totally unveiled to me, not that it was ever any of my business, but I ran into it often.
I was working at one time in some commercial real estate ventures. Looking for the owner of the property a client of mine was interested in - it came up my rich friend. When I went to the courthouse and started looking at adjoining properties seeing if I might pull together or assimilate other properties into this one - they too were owned by my old friend. In fact, he owned several city blocks all in one area. All those businesses and, behind them, residences, were his rental property. In total for that plot, 3 hotels, 4 gas stations or convenience stores and a restaurant, coin operated laundry and grocery store - all his buildings. I knew he owned acreage, one of the prettiest lakes right next to a major 4-lane highway he owned hundreds of acres of land.
On one of my visits he put me into his old station wagon and we rode out to a parcel of land he held. There he showed me some beautiful 40 year old pine trees, several acres of them. Planted in rows and standing 50-60 feet tall. He said, "I planted these so I'd have money for Jill to go to college. Fortunately I didn't have to cut them 20 years ago." Planning for the future was always a part of his mindset.
One of the funniest stories he ever told me went back 65 years or so. Our town has its high society and always has. From back in the days of cotton to more recent money from poultry or medicine or whatever, this area has always been fairly affluent. During the late 1930s Willie told me he and his buddies hatched a plan to make some money. He said there was an annual charity ball held at a local farm where you had first to get an invitation and then had to pay big money to buy a ticket. The ball was set up to accommodate about 100 people. About 150 invitations normally went out and they expected about 100 people to pay and attend.
So Willie and his two buddies went to the lady in charge of the ball and offered that they wanted to help them raise money. They would act as valet parking attendants for free if she would have them. She agreed. The plan was set and they went to it.
The night of the ball, one of the boys would meet the guests as they came up the driveway and get them out of their car - and take their invitation they had paid for. He would hand the invitation off to one of the other boys who would drive into town and "re-market" the invitation for half price to someone they had already told they would have some half-price tickets available. Quickly those people would throw on their Sunday best and head over to the party. This went on over and over again until about 10:30 that night when the boys figured they better quit. With over 200 guests at the dinner - it was getting a little crowded and some people were leaving. They had to be there to bring them their cars - two of which were nearly out of gas since the boys were using them to deliver -and in some cases bring - the discount guests to the ball. According to my old friend, he made more money that night in a few hours than he made for months after. No one ever questioned it, and no one ever complained.
It wasn't long after that instance Willie went to war. He was a decorated veteran and served his country very well. When he got back to the states he went into business for himself and built a small empire in the poultry business selling eggs to grocery stores and chicken to poultry processors. He made a practice to buy land when he had the money - but usually land that had rental property on it or, at least a chicken house that produced revenue.
I went to his office one day and he was particularly excited about something. He had a habit of chewing on good cigars - he never lit them, just chewed on them. He kept a pair of very sharp scissors in his desk drawer he would pull out occasionally to cut off the soaked end of the stogie and drop it in the wastebasket that was always over his left shoulder. He was chewing on that cigar like a little kid with a new toy. I asked him what he was so excited about, and he said he was going deer hunting over in Alabama. He said a friend of his that was wealthy beyond measure had a track of land that had some of the best deer hunting in the world on it. He was packing everything getting ready for the trip.
I asked him about his friend. He said, "Well, he was a pretty good mechanic and as a boy worked on some cars. He saved his money and bought into a car dealership back in the 40's after the war. He ended up owning half a dozen dealerships and auto parts stores up and down the highway in that area. He built a hospital, a college and some other enhancements for the community. He sent several kids through college as long as they agreed to come home and work for him - some of them were doctors, lawyers, dentists...and he had a piece of their practices as they moved on through life. But he never changed, really. He still works on his own cars, drives a 20 year old Ranchero (combination car and pickup truck) that he keeps running to a tee. I know where we will find him too." I waited with bated breath, "He'll be parked next to the highway picking up aluminum cans somewhere near his farm."
I was floored. Why would a man of these kinds of means be out picking up trash along the highway? "He gets about a nickel for every can now, or something like that. He figures if people were throwing nickels out of their car he'd have more competition picking them up." Never had I thought of it that way - so maybe that is why I don't have a bounty of riches either...
I asked Willie if he charges his group to go hunting there. I understood they would be there for about a week. There were 4 guys in the group riding together. Food, room, liquor, all for a week, what would just that cost? Willie said, well, he likes for me to bring him something. That was the chore, finding something to bring a millionaire many times over - from a millionaire many times over.
Well, it wasn't silver or gold. It wasn't jewels or vehicles or golf clubs. What my buddy was taking his friend was a hand carved duck decoy that he had carved from a tree on his farm. It was totally unique, something he had made himself just for his friend. His friend loved ducks and duck hunting. He particularly liked wood ducks and this was a wood duck drake. No paint, just wood and stain, hand rubbed into the wood. It came from a walnut log off his farm. Probably had a store value of $100 or so, maybe more, maybe less. But as a friends offering to another friend, it was priceless.
Willie told me that story and it made me think. Growing up, we were far from wealthy. I didn't know it as I was always fed, always had a roof over my head and we did a lot of fun stuff. But money wasn't easy to come by. But my mother and father always had something to give people, particularly at Christmas. My mother had a peanut butter fudge recipe that she and dad would make a half dozen times at Christmas. It made about 5 pounds of fudge on every batch and she would divide it out into small containers and give it to friends when they came calling. No matter who the friend was, it was always a very cherished gift - and usually was requested a year later!
I started my own business a decade ago and at Christmas, I took these two stories to heart. Since then, every year I make peanut butter fudge. I ship it all over the Southeast to some of the largest corporations in America. I look forward to doing it every year - and have made as much as 14 batches in my kitchen - about 70 pounds of fudge! My customers have written me telling me things like, "Charlie retired but you can still send the fudge," or "Bill quit, but my address is the same as his for the fudge." Of all the things in the world I could send to build my relationship with my customers, money isn't how it is measured. The fact that I actually make the fudge, package and ship it to them means so much more.
This summer I have been able to do something else. Many of my new customers are getting another special treat. Every batch truly has my blood and sweat in them...literally. Picking wild blackberries it is impossible not to get a few dozen briar sticks - and my arms look like I raked them across a saw or something. The heat this summer has been abnormally high with every day above 95 degrees along with the humidity. So serious blood and sweat in every jar! The people that receive the jelly? Family first, close friends and associates, and my customers. No one is allowed to send things of much dollar value anymore anyway - you don't want to sway someone's opinion due to the goodies you can bestow on them - but the people value of hand created gifts - priceless.