How did it happen? How did a couple of Jewish kids from humble origins become two of the wealthiest men in America? They are remarkable tales, the stories of Home Depot cofounder Bernie Marcus and Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson. Stories few Americans know. Stories of how wealth is really created in our country. And by whom. Stories that could have happened only in America.
And so we must start these two stories where it’s best to start stories — in the beginning.
Both men grew up during the Great Depression, the children of first-generation Russian immigrants. Their parents didn’t come here to change America; they came here to have America change them. Change their life prospects, and those of their children.
Marcus was born in 1929, the son of a cabinetmaker, and grew up in a tenement in Newark, N.J. Adelson was born a few years later and a few hundred miles north in the tough Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. His father drove a taxi, and his mother ran a knitting shop.
They had little money growing up, but they were not poor; they were lucky to have families that instilled in them the value of self-reliance, accountability, and charity — “the age-old virtues,” Adelson wrote in a 2012 Wall Street Journal column, “that help make our communities prosperous.” Values that would shape their lives and prepare them for the challenges life would throw their way.
They were also lucky to grow up at a time when the culture reinforced those values. The studio moguls and directors of their youth — names such as Louis B. Mayer and Frank Capra — understood the American Dream because they were themselves products of immigrant families who embraced that very same dream.
So how did these two men get where they got from where they were from? Did they go to Ivy League colleges or get MBAs and work the halls of corporate management or the canyons of Wall Street?
It turns out that neither attended a fancy college, let alone business school. Marcus attended Rutgers and graduated with a pharmacy degree; Adelson attended New York’s City College and dropped out. Their education was real-life business, their graduate school the school of trial and error. But both men possessed the tenacity to overcome obstacles that no college can impart and the capacity to take risks that MBA programs often crush.
They had varying degrees of success during their 20s and 30s, making good money — and in some cases losing even more. Marcus learned soon after graduating from college that he didn’t want to fill prescriptions for the rest of his life and that his real talent was in retail sales. He racked up big sales numbers wherever he went, and after 20-plus years of work found himself the CEO of Handy Dan Home Improvement Center in Los Angeles. Until he wasn’t. A disagreement with his boss left Marcus out of a job and on the street in his late 40s.
He didn’t know it at the time, but getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to him. In 1978, with the help of investment banker Ken Langone and partner Arthur Blank, he launched The Home Depot. The store revolutionized the home-improvement business with its warehouse concept and turned millions of homeowners into do-it-yourself contractors. And it turned Marcus into a billionaire.
Adelson’s is a classic entrepreneur’s story. He started his first business when he was 12, and he never stopped starting them. After a brief stint in the Army and college, he worked as a mortgage broker and investment adviser and made his first small fortune. In the early 1960s he moved back to Boston and invested in various companies, among them a travel-and-tour business, which were profitable. But the stock-market decline of the mid-1960s came, pushing Adelson into new lines of work. He found himself in the condominium-conversion business in the 1970s and did well for a short time. Until he didn’t.
Then came his big “break.” He bought a company that published magazines, one of which was a computer magazine, which soon led to the creation of the Computer Dealers Expo, or COMDEX. In 1995 he sold COMDEX to a Japanese firm for $860 million, with a personal share of over $500 million.
But Adelson didn’t stop there. He did what entrepreneurs are born to do: He took an even bigger risk and built the $1.5 billion Venetian Resort Hotel Casino and the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas after a visit to Italy with his wife. Casinos in Macau and Singapore followed.
In 2009, Adelson suffered another blow, losing over 90 percent of his wealth as the stock market — and shares of his casino stock — plummeted. Rumors floated that his businesses were hovering at the edge of bankruptcy. The stock has since rebounded, making him one of the richest men in the world, but his attitude about the decline was consistent with the many economic ups and downs of his life. “So I lost $25 billion,” he told ABC News flippantly. “I started out with zero.”