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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

July 13, 1989|DANA PARSONS | 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!"

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.

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?' "

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."

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