LAKEVIEW, Ore. — He is a most improbable millionaire. On that, Lakeview is agreed.
And to find him here, driving his Rolls-Royce or projecting his boyish brand of enthusiasm or wielding a shovel or spreading his money around in share-the-wealth fashion, only adds to the improbability. This town that cattle and lumber and Irish grit built on the wind-swept reaches of the Oregon desert still isn't quite sure what to make of Jim Schmit.
Maybe it's because, luxury cars and multiple business ventures aside, Schmit at 45 comes with none of the trappings of real or fictional millionaires.
Soft-spoken and earnest, as likely to ask a question as to assert an answer, the Washington farm boy who became a big-bucks Lake Tahoe developer still seems modestly surprised at his own success.
Since his nationwide search for a small town to call home ended in Lakeview five years ago, the purposeful newcomer has, by his accounting, plunked something like $2 million into this town without expecting any immediate return. He's taken in more than 20 of the locals as partners in a dozen business ventures that he has acquired or launched.
Those who sit the fence and keep score say that most of this town of 3,000, maybe 90%, seem to think Schmit is doing just fine, even if it doesn't understand exactly why he is here.
Schmit grew up near Puyallup, Wash., where his father, a farmer of German descent, made a very modest living and planted a strong work ethic in his sons, John and Jim. John would rise from a Boeing Inc. floor sweeper to his present position as director of the company's aerospace manufacturing operations.
Jim went to Hawaii and then California, where in 1964 he spent his $500 savings on a pair of newly subdivided Lake Tahoe lots, each priced at $100 down and $39 a month. The development company persuaded him to become a salesman in the San Francisco area. He was so shy that he simply posted a sales offer on the bulletin board at the apartment complex where he lived.
He sold his first lot instantly and then persuaded his first customer, a bartender, to help him find sales contacts.
"I became the top salesman that summer," he says. "I was 23 years old and I made $60,000."
The following year, he relocated to Lake Tahoe for the thankless task of selling snow-covered lots in mid-winter. With the simple enticements of a warm campfire, hot dogs and free snowmobile rides, he sold more lots in winter than any other salesman had in the summer.
At the age of 24 he was the company's general sales manager, making $600,000 a year. Then he bought out the operation, renamed it Lake Tahoe Resources and embarked on a decade of land development, real estate and investment ventures that range from Hawaii to Wyoming.
"I kept myself virtually broke," he says. "I never played. The only thing I gave myself was a good home and a nice car. I've always had a weakness for cars."
He became a serious collector of historical vehicles, rolling stock that had been owned by heads of state, movie stars and other celebrities.
Schmit describes himself as a man who was gobbling antacids and checking into the Mayo Clinic by the mid-'70s. He took 1975 off and, through some business contacts he had made, wound up traveling for a season as a statistician with the Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Assn.
His search for a small community began then. When the Warriors landed in an NBA city, Schmit would rent a car and go town-hunting, looking for an ideal place with fewer than 10,000 residents.
With his new wife, Vicki, he chose a summer day in 1982 for a reconnaissance drive to check out Flathead Lake, Mont. But a friendly Lakeview gas station attendant smiled and answered his questions. Before the day was out, Schmit had bought a house in Lakeview.