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Me, Rich? : To Some Local Millionaires, Making a Million--and Feeling Like It--Isn’t All What It’s Cracked Up to Be

Times Staff Writer

In 1976, Phil Siegel was applying for a home loan and needed a personal financial statement. His accountant went over the numbers and mailed the statement to Siegel’s home in San Juan Capistrano.

Siegel opened the envelope, looked at the statement and called the accountant to see if a mistake had been made. “It said my net worth was $1.5 million,” said Siegel, now 49. “And I said, ‘My God, I can’t believe it.’ ”

It was no mistake, the accountant said.

Siegel then said those three little words that mean so much: “I’m a millionaire!”

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He showed the figures to his wife and gave her a big kiss and hug.

I’m a millionaire . Kind of rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? The word has always been part of the lexicon of the American dreamer, conjuring up images of chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces, yachts and a life of ease. In a bygone era, it was a status reserved for the Rockefellers and Gettys--old men and old families who seemed married to their money. Or to people born into wealth, who inherited either family businesses or family trust funds.

Regular people couldn’t become millionaires. If they did, it was fantasy like the stories portrayed in the 1950s television series, “The Millionaire.” On that program, aging benefactor John Beresford Tipton gave $1 million each week to an unsuspecting stranger, presumably changing his or her life forever.

But nowadays, regular people in Orange County are becoming millionaires--many through real estate and others through their businesses, parlaying ideas and in some cases relatively little start-up capital into small fortunes.

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Today, several million dollars later, Phil Siegel’s wealth has enabled him to buy four cars, including a Cadillac and a Mercedes-Benz, and two homes, but he said he still tries to remember the simple virtues he grew up with. “Never lose your values,” he said. “You could be misdirected by having a lot of money. I’m fortunate that my mom and dad had a real strong work ethic and values for living, and that’s probably the number one asset I got from my parents.”

In case millionaires need a dose of humility, there’s probably no better place to get it than Orange County. “People know how you’re doing,” Siegel said. “They know I’m not a great big hitter, like a lot of people in Orange County. If this were the Midwest, that (having a million dollars) would be a big status symbol. Here, it’s status, but it’s not uncommon to find a lot of people around you who have done that well or better.”

Still, Siegel’s good fortune gives him pause. “Every now and then, I say, ‘Gee, Phil, if some of your real old friends could see what you’ve done now, they couldn’t believe it.’ ”

Interviews with four Orange County millionaires who have varying degrees of wealth indicate that making lots of money doesn’t guarantee a stress-free life. And while all are able to live comfortably with their fortunes, their responses to their wealth differ. For example, one millionaire said he’s got more money than he needs; another said he’s determined to get more.

The mythology of the millionaire may be undergoing change, Orange County financial planners say. That is, making a million ain’t what it used to be. Especially if the wealth is tied up in real estate.

And the dollars aren’t stretching as far as they once did. Twenty years ago, in what economists call “real dollars,” today’s $1 million had the buying power of $2.8 million.

“You’re going to talk to a lot of millionaires who say, ‘I don’t think of myself as a millionaire. I may have hit the magic number, but every day is still a struggle for me,’ ” said Victoria Avey, a Newport Beach attorney specializing in estate planning, wills and trusts.

Avey talks to many older people who learn from her--often for the first time--that they’re millionaires. “They look at me and say, ‘I don’t feel rich. How come I don’t have money burning a hole in my pocket?’ ”

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Foster Shannon, a partner in a Newport Beach investment management firm, said: “I’m sure in this day and age, it (being a millionaire) doesn’t have the same status it did when I was younger, which was basically in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when you really did think that attaining a million dollars was the epitome of your life. And I don’t think that’s true anymore. It’s certainly reflected in the prices you pay for things. Like a Cadillac selling for $35,000 now. At that time, it was selling for somewhere around $5,000.”

Phil Siegel wasn’t thinking of making a million when he put up $300 in 1966 to start a blueprint company with a friend who put up $3,000. Ten years later, however, Siegel was a millionaire.

“We almost closed within three months,” he said, recalling the company’s early days. “We were not making any money at all. Then the business started coming in. I was putting the hours in, but I never had that dream or vision that this (the company) was going to be great. I just wanted to make a living, but then it grew and grew.”

Today, he puts his worth at around $9 million. “I grew up in the Midwest with old-fashioned Midwest values of a middle-class family,” Siegel said. “That was what I envisioned I wanted to be. I never said to myself that I wanted to become a millionaire. I never drove myself back then. It just happened.”

Like Siegel, William Remy didn’t set out to become a millionaire. Growing up in the dust bowl of West Texas in the 1930s, Remy saw his parents struggle with finances, yet hold their heads high.

But by holding onto Southern California real estate, Remy, the 67-year-old president of an accounting firm in Anaheim, passed the million-dollar threshold a few years ago.

The day passed without a celebration. “I’m just being philosophical now, but it’s a sad feeling,” he said. “That great feeling we thought would be there is not there.”

It isn’t that Remy is bemoaning his fate. It’s just that these days, he counts his blessings, not his money. “I’m driving an ’83 Buick and my wife’s driving a ’79 Mustang,” Remy said. “Hell, why not? It’s only got 5,000 miles on (the Buick). I can buy a Mercedes if I want it, but it doesn’t appeal to me. It’s just another car as far as I’m concerned. The house is probably worth $250,000, and that’s not much of a house in Orange County these days.

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“I realize money doesn’t make that much difference. If you’re healthy--and my wife and I are an exceptionally happy couple together--as long as I’ve got that, I could live on a lot less money. I can look at the balance sheet and see I’ve got the wealth there. But it’s just numbers.”

This is not to suggest that Remy and his wife keep their money buried in the back yard. “I don’t feel like I’m squeezing it,” he said. “Anything we want, we buy, but we just don’t have the desire to flaunt it. Way back when I was young, you think, ‘Oh boy, one of these days. . . . ' Then you find when you’ve got it, you don’t think about it too much. I haven’t even retired yet because I don’t know what I’d do after I retire. Frankly, I’d feel lost. Like a lot of retired people, I’d miss the challenge of working.”

When he was 4, Stuart Silver wanted to be a fireman. But by the time he was 19, he started a rental-car business with four cars. That has expanded into Avon Rent-a-Car with 36 outlets. Silver said he’s worth about $19 million.

“When I was a kid, I always thought I’d like to be a millionaire, just like everyone else thinks,” Silver, 31, married and the father of three, said. “But I don’t think at that age you can have any comprehension of what a million dollars is. Today, a million doesn’t mean anything, in my opinion. When I was younger, a million dollars seemed like the ultimate in the world. Today, the ultimate would be $100 million.”

Silver’s ascension to worldly wealth has had a love-hate aspect to it, he said. The down side is that the hectic pace of running a successful business has cost him time with his family.

“At the beginning . . . I decided I wanted to have a lot of money and would work as hard as I could to make as much as I possibly could,” Silver said. “I was putting in between 12 to 16 hours seven days a week. But now with my three children, I’m having a hard time realizing in my own head that they’re growing up. My boy is 4 1/2 and it’s like, ‘Wow, he was just born two months ago.’ It’s strange--everybody’s growing up.”

Yet, Silver, who has a Newport Beach home in addition to one in Encino, continues to log long hours. “I’m usually out by 6 in the morning and back in the house at 9 o’clock. But I enjoy what I do; that’s the crazy thing. I like the headaches and the pressure. I can deal with it.”

And despite the two houses, the four cars, the 38-foot boat, there’s more to work for, Silver said. “I don’t feel I’ve achieved where I want to be yet; that’s why I’m pushing the way I am now. Sometimes I sit back and say why do I really need the headache. I could be cashed out of here and live off interest of $100,000 a month if I wanted to. But, hey, I’m not that type of person.”

Millionaire status was the last thing on Jacqueline Kamin’s mind in 1979. Recently divorced and the mother of two young girls, Kamin, who then lived in Washington, was just looking for a job that would support herself and her children.

“I had been trained as an artist. All my life I thought I would be a painter and (as her marriage was ending), I just felt that I didn’t know what I was going to do. I needed a job and I thought, ‘Who would hire me--I’m a painter?’ and I had to support two kids.”

Then she remembered that she had seen the Famous Amos chocolate chip cookie stores while visiting Southern California. “I thought, this is something I can do,” Kamin said.

She opened a cookie store and then began promoting it. “I roller-skated to the Washington Post and said I was baking cookies on the next corner. In the next couple of weeks, they put me in the Sunday magazine. The next day I had 900 customers. That really started it. Once people got used to buying cookies, they came back.”

By the end of her first year as an entrepreneur, Kamin had two cookie stores. Within a few years, she had eight, including six in New York. When she sold the stores and moved to Newport Beach 4 1/2 years ago with the man who would become her husband, Kamin had become a millionaire.

Ironically, her wealth enabled her to pursue her first love: painting. “Money is really the measure of success in our society, unfortunately,” Kamin said. “To me, the success is being able to paint and be a successful artist. The opportunity to do that was presented because of the money.”

She has already sold some of her artwork to a Beverly Hills gallery.

For that reason, it isn’t chocolate chip cookies that Kamin wants to leave as her legacy. “I really look to my success as a painter. I’ve had articles written about me (while running the cookie stores), and it really is wonderful for your self-esteem. But my biggest high is that I’m going to be a successful artist and painter.”

And if she had no money? “The money brings freedom to do what you want,” Kamin, now 39, said. “I feel like I’m living the same way I was 15 years ago, except I wasn’t able to have the freedom to do what I wanted.”

Kamin said she and her husband, a doctor, are not jet-setters. “Our life style is fairly simple,” she said. “We had a boat, and we hated it. With our free time, we travel. We basically like to play golf and ski and play tennis and work out.”

So what difference has the money made? “The difference,” Kamin said, “is that instead of taking one trip to Colorado to go skiing every couple of years, I can take three every year.”


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