Fuqua: How I Made My Fortune Using Other People's Money

June 1, 2002

 

 
Fuqua: How I Made My Fortune
Using Other People's Money
By J.B. Fuqua.
Longstreet Press, 2002.
327 pages. $24.95.
 

Fuqua:How I Made My Fortunene day in 1935, a seventeen-year-old walked into the local country store from his grandparents' poor tobacco farm in south central Virginia. He had a telegram in his hand, and he asked the clerk to help him place a phone call--his first ever. The telegram was from a man offering him a job as a radio operator on a cargo ship headed for South Africa. The boy was J.B. Fuqua, and the job launched a career that would make him one of the richest men in America.

J.B. Fuqua's autobiography is subtitled How I Made My Fortune Using Other People's Money, and it has a chapter titled "Using Other People's Brains." But if one message comes through loud and clear in this rags-to-riches story, it is that Fuqua made his way--and his vast fortune--by dint of his own brains and energy.

He was born with nothing. He was raised by grandparents who didn't particularly want him and could barely support themselves. But he had inherited an enormous store of curiosity and self-confidence, and that was all it took.

Starting with a twenty-five-cent investment in a mail-order book, How to Become An Amateur Radio Operator, he taught himself a profession that would get him off the farm and out into the world. And, with books borrowed by mail from the Duke University Library, he taught himself about banking and finance. Then, when he decided to return to dry land after a year at sea, he put these skills together with his sizable ego--"I've always had a big ego and I've never trusted anyone who didn't have one also"--and moved to a town where he didn't know anybody, and talked three people into lending him $10,000 to start a radio station.

The station, WGAC, was the second radio station in Augusta, Georgia. It was profitable from day one. With his share of the income, J.B. Fuqua began to build an empire that would at times include TV stations, movie theaters, real-estate investment trusts, Simplicity Pattern Company, industrial products companies, a savings and loan, and the largest photofinisher in the world.

For those interested in learning how to make a fortune using other people's money, Fuqua offers a number of useful lessons on managing balance sheets, financing acquisitions, leverage, and other business topics. But the broader lessons, the ones that are more valuable, and valuable to more people, are the ones about of honesty, loyalty, and hard work.

Starting from the very first page, Fuqua's theme is clear. The third sentence of the book is: "I am proof that any obstacle can be overcome if you are willing to educate yourself and work hard." A few pages later, he talks about his early career: "This was not merely a case of being in the right place at the right time. I was ambitious and prepared for each one of these jobs." And after that, in describing the building of his empire: "Most people who appear to have had an unusual amount of luck are usually those who have positioned themselves in order for desirable things to happen to them."

Fuqua presents himself as a down-to-earth, no-frills, thoughtful kind of guy who has discovered a winning formula and followed it faithfully. He is proud of himself. He put his name on his company so people would know that he had confidence in it. He is loyal to employees, reaching into his own pocket to pay benefits for retirees of at least one company he acquired. And he is supremely honest, which as he points out, is a very good business practice.

Starting with a minimal investment, Fuqua amassed a huge fortune. By his own calculation, he has given away more than $100 million. The Fuqua School of Business at Duke is his expression of gratitude for those library books mailed to a poor farmer kid three-quarters of a century ago. And there are clearly many more dollars left in his pockets.

The feat is astonishing on the face of it. But it is made all the more so by his disclosure in a short six-page chapter, "My Personal Struggles," toward the end of the book that he has suffered from severe depression nearly all of his life. In 1995, at the age of seventy-seven, he underwent electroconvulsive shock treatments, which he found to be a "highly effective last-resort treatment." He still takes antidepressants daily, and he has become an advocate for removing the stigma associated with the "insidious disease" of depression.

"When I was at my worst, which was most of my adult life, I just wanted to sleep or escape reality," he says. "Your thoughts slow down and your thinking is clouded by indecision. You question even routine decisions, doubting your judgment as your thoughts slow to a snail's pace." Imagine what this man could have done if he had been feeling good.


Cardwell '69, a member of Duke Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board, develops, writes, and edits books on management and business topics.