The Telegraph article by Joe Shute,
Let us assume, dear reader, that you are interested in one thing, and one thing only: obtaining a vast fortune.” So begins economist Sam Wilkin’s new book, Wealth Secrets of the One Percent, on how the super-rich became just that. The “fortune”, Wilkin clarifies, is not the stuff of fancy cars and a holiday home on the Amalfi coast, but “yachts and personal helicopters, diamond-encrusted light fixtures, stately homes and private islands”.
The sort of fortune, in other words, available only to the world’s 1,826 billionaires and well beyond the wildest imaginations of the rest of us.
But Wilkin says he can change all of that. He has spent years researching the machinations of the uber-rich, and claims to have homed in on their wealth secrets. Pay attention, for this could be your chance to follow in the Italian leather-shod footsteps of the world’s wealthiest one per cent.
Get-rich-quick tomes are, of course, nothing new, and usually more common to a Waterstones bargain bucket than an oligarch’s bookshelf – if such a thing exists. However, what makes this book different is that Sam Wilkin is an inside man.
The 41-year-old is a senior adviser for Oxford Economics (one of the world’s foremost global research consultancies) and Oxford Analytica, which provides strategic advice to more than 50 governments across the globe. He works with some of the world’s largest companies and even the odd billionaire, although, unfortunately, he won’t say which.
Wilkin has previously written several economic theory books, but this one, published worldwide this month, is different. It zeroes in on how the wealthy made it and tries to answer the billion-dollar question “How can I get me some of that?”
We meet for dinner at a harbourside restaurant in Amsterdam. Wilkin is Buckinghamshire-born but lives in New York, and is travelling back via Holland after giving a lecture in China. From the book’s amoral money-grabbing tone, I am half-expecting a Wolf of Wall Street character to breeze in, perhaps arriving by launch from some distantly moored super-yacht.
Instead, I am greeted by a bespectacled figure in a suit crumpled by his long-haul flight. He prefers one glass of beer to a bottle of vintage champagne.
So the obvious question – one I am grilling him on before he has even buttered his bread – is exactly how does somebody (to take just a random example, say, a lowly paid journalist) become a billionaire?
The good news, first, is that it is getting easier. In Britain alone, the number of billionaires has increased from 53 to 113 in five years. For 2015, there are 290 newcomers on the Forbes global rich list.
“It’s easier than ever,” Wilkin says. “It’s the rise of the financial sector and fast-growing emerging markets. These are what an economist would call institutional factors.”
The book narrows the so-called wealth secrets down to seven, but for Wilkin only two really matter: eradicate the competition and take risks with other people’s money. He cites the example of Microsoft founder and richest person on the planet, Bill Gates, as somebody who managed to seize control of an entire market. Same, too, the lightning expansion of Google by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook empire.
Wilkin compares this total control of markets by men who had barely finished their degrees to the robber barons of late-19th-century and early-20th-century America.
While the likes of Rockefeller, John Pierepont Morgan and Andrew Carnegie managed to hoover up the vast profits of industrialisation, a century on, a privileged few have similarly reaped the rewards of a new digital economy. Wilkin says the pharmaceutical and technology sectors are nowadays where the true money is to be made. This is what American investor Warren Buffett, the third-richest man in the world (net worth of US$72.3 billion – pounds 46.3 billion), refers to as getting in the right boat.
The other obvious way to have no competitors is to pick a place where nobody else wants to do business. “The best place to do business is really the worst,” he says. “You want a place that is so hard to do business in that nobody else can get one started.”
The most famous example of this, he goes on, was the Wild East of Russia during the Nineties, where men like Roman Abramovich (last week spotted sailing his 557ft super-yacht through the Western Isles) made their wealth.
By 2004, Moscow was home to more billionaires than New York, and this, more than ever, says Wilkin, is the wealth secret that dominates the rich list. The emerging markets of China, India, Brazil and Mexico are now home to almost one in four of the world’s billionaires.
But clearly, knowing where and how to operate is not enough. Personality is also key, and Wilkin believes there are obvious traits that unite a lot of the people in the book, going as far back as Marcus Licinius Crassus, the ancient Roman known as one of the richest men ever.
The corporate matiness of modern billionaires, as personified by Richard Branson chillaxing on his private island of Necker, masks a steely resolve. This is the main disclaimer for readers. “Knowing what you can do to be rich is not the same as being able to execute it,” warns Wilkin.
“These people tend to be pretty merciless, really competitive,” he says. “You have to go in willing to fight tooth and nail to be that winner, and be comfortable and untroubled by wiping everybody else out.”
Wilkin talks about the “hard-charged testosterone environment” of modern-day financiers, resting on ego and still very much a man’s world.
Another uniting trait he has noticed is that billionaires tend to declare their financial objectives as young children.
“Bill Gates did it to his high-school friends. Andrew Carnegie, too. Having the objective just to have money is a major driver.”
The economist himself comes from normal middle-class stock – his English father is a retired professor, his American mother a former librarian – and admits he is full of respect for the “amazing gumption” of your average billionaire. “It’s impossible not to admire these people,” Wilkin says.
“They are larger-than-life characters who have done amazing things.”
And what about him, I wonder. If he knows their secrets, why doesn’t Wilkin become a billionaire himself? He insists, in between sips of mint tea, that he has no desire for great wealth – mapping how it is made is interesting enough.
He says the “moneyed herd” of super-rich bankers and the like are a regular sight in Manhattan, but the endless desire to stay on top at all costs that unites so many billionaires is not for him. Happiness, he believes, should not depend on one’s bank balance.
Still, when I ask what he would spend his fictional billions on, it is impossible to ignore the glint in his eye. “Nothing ostentatious, but I would like to have a nice place in a few countries. Maybe Oxford, maybe New York, maybe Japan…”
And I wonder whether perhaps the one per cent may soon have another member.
Top Wealth Secrets
• Pick a field in which you can establish a monopoly, such as Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, who took control of the country’s entire telecommunications market
• Expand as quickly as possible. Amazon eschewed early profitability to become the “everything shop” and, as a result, investors poured money in
• The worst place to do business is really the best. It is easier to dominate emerging markets thanks to the lack of competition
• Take risks with other people’s money: encourage investors
• Own your own business and property rights: Bill Gates’s Microsoft at one point had a 95 per cent share of the operating systems market
• Spin complex laws into gold: set up in industries bound by such convoluted regulation that it is easy to bend the rules that nobody understands
• Establish networks. Telecoms networks and shipping networks have created a lot of fortunes
– Wealth Secrets of the One Percent by Sam Wilkin is published by Little, Brown.