Most Billionaires are Self-Made

Published on 2015/05/31
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UBS and PWC just published a survey titled “Billionaires. Master Architects of Great Wealth and Lasting Legacies” that looks into the sources of such riches, among other aspects. While inherited wealth still accounted for 57% of all billionaires in 1995, the share of self-made billionaires has steadily increased in the years since, and the percentage of billionaires backed by inherited fortunes has dropped to one third (34%). Accordingly, two out of three billionaires (66%) are self-made today.

Out of a total of 1,300 billionaires worldwide, roughly half (47%) are living in the United States. Runner-up is Asia, which is home to 36% of the billionaires, while Europe ranks third with 17%.

Nearly all billionaires are entrepreneurs. So what are the sectors that made them rich? In the United States, the financial sector (30%) is the primary source of billionaire wealth, followed by technology companies (27.3%). That being said, technology entrepreneurs (meaning people like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Bill Gates or the founders of Google) tend to be twice as well to do as hedge fund managers and other billionaires who made their fortune in the financial sector.

In Europe, by contrast, half of all billionaires have their roots in the consumer goods industry or the retail trade. Here, “[e]ntrepreneurs have made their fortunes from founding the region’s large retail houses.” This matches the situation in Asia, where most billionaire belong in the consumer goods industry, yet those who made their fortune in real estate sector rank second.

Here are some other interesting facts quoted by the survey:

  • Self-made billionaires tend to earn their fortune early in life. Nearly a quarter (23%) crossed the billion-dollar threshold before their 30th birthday, and more than two thirds became billionaires before they turned 40.
  • Although there are some well-know university drop-outs among the world’s billionaires (e.g. Steve Jobs or Michael Dell), no less than 82% hold a degree.
  • Half of all billionaires worked in a major company before starting their own business and becoming rich.
  • Self-made men who rose from poverty account for 25% of the billionaires in Asia, compared to a ratio of 8% in the US and 6% in Europe.

The interviews that researchers conducted for the survey also revealed certain personality traits that were instrumental for the success of the billionaires.

One of them is the risk behaviour, and the survey notes: “Their risk profile is skewed towards focusing on the upside and being realistic on the downside (and not being scared by it). They’re afraid to lose by not capturing an opportunity, tending not to worry about the downside of a new venture failing but instead being concerned about missing out on the upside.” “They look for asymmetrical opportunities where they do have an advantage… In these situations the risks for anybody without these advantages will appear high and they are likely to walk away.” “They have very strong ability to recover from failure. On the one hand they rarely take ‘bet the house’ risks, but rather always keep enough resources to be able to recover. On the other hand when the original idea fails they have the ability to ‘pivot’, i.e. they constantly adjust the initial idea until they succeed.”

Another typical character trait is an obsessive business focus: “After they have identified an opportunity they switch to an extremely focused modus operandi in execution that some observers could call ‘tunnel vision’.”

About the Author

Dr. Rainer Zitelmann is one of the leading experts for the strategic positioning and communications of companies.