Are you a thrillionaire or a realionaire?

Commentary about business and finance.
March 24 2006 5:51 PM

Are You a Thrillionaire or a Realionaire?

The five kinds of rich people.

Pity the poor American millionaire. Retailers and financial institutions look at him and see only a giant pile of money, not the living, breathing, laughing, loving person buried in it. Admit it, even you have cruelly judged plutocrats by nothing more than the content of their wallets.

This must end.

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In 2004, there were some 8.9 million households in the United States with investable assets of $1 million or more (this excludes homes and retirement accounts). The simplistic way in which we view millionaires—be it as high-living Trumps or as the bourgeois penny-pinchers of The Millionaire Next Doorisn't helpful to those who are trying to sell products and services to the rich. As Susan Hirshman, managing director and wealth strategist at JPMorgan Funds, notes, "to serve them, we have to understand the underlying person and what his or her value system is."

Which brings us to Larry Samuel, who aims to do for the American wealthy what Margaret Mead did for the Samoans. He is the anthropologist of plutocrats. Samuel, who has a Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Minnesota, runs a market research firm, Culture Planning, that studies the rich on behalf of JPMorgan. Samuel and his researchers examine the habits and behavior of the rich in their natural habitats and reach conclusions based on close observation and thick description. Today, after all, being affluent isn't just a matter of assets, it's a matter of lifestyle. And because the opportunities for conspicuous consumption are so much greater today than ever before, millionaires are no longer confined to a tedious regimen of Cadillacs, country clubs, and clapboard Colonials.

Samuel has thus classified American millionaires into five archetypes, each with its own Passion Points, consuming habits, and style, as follows:

Thrillionaires. These are Thorstein Veblen's conspicuous consumers: generally insecure people who thirst for privacy and exclusivity, and for whom objects and a first-class lifestyle are a constant reminder of status and success. Well-known exemplar: Donald Trump. Natural habitat: Las Vegas; Boca Raton, Fla.

Coolionaires. These rich aesthetes may not work in creative fields, but they view creativity as the essence of life. They plow cash into fine art, cool architecture, and benefits at the New York Public Library. Money is, in Samuel's words, an "opportunity to express one's status as a person of refinement and sophistication." Well-known exemplars: disgraced opera impresario Alberto Vilar, money manager/utopian community developer Boykin Curry. Natural habitat: Manhattan below 14th Street.

Realionaires. Practical, unassuming types. These people like to live under the radar and stay out of gossip columns. While they hate to spend money unnecessarily, "they're willing to splurge on things that matter to them," said Samuel. "Ivy League Schools, Stickley furniture, professional appliances." They have an affinity for big-ticket, brand-name items because they deliver value, not status. Well-known exemplar: Warren Buffett. Natural habitat: The Midwest.

Wellionaires: Spiritual rich folks who view life in holistic terms. They're willing to splurge to make sure they look good, feel healthy, and stay in good shape. They're open to therapy, New Age thinking, and alternative medicine. Well-known exemplars: disgraced former Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, Oprah. Natural habitat: Sedona, Ariz.; Santa Monica, Calif.

Willionaires: What used to be known as Old Money. These are people who recognize their privilege and responsibility to leave the world a better place than they found it. Social entrepreneurs, they're interested in their legacy and maintaining traditions. They view philanthropy as a way of life. Well-known exemplars:David Rockefeller, Bill Gates. Natural Habitat: Maine, Park Avenue.

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