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.

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.

Such archetyping is a fun enterprise. Most anthropologists conduct research while living in a hut in rural Indonesia. Samuel and a group of stringers fan out into markets thick with millionaires and take notes. When I spoke to Samuel this morning, he was in the field—in Miami: "There's a DJ and hip-hop conference going on here, and there's lots of bling, I've seen several Rolls Royces." (Clearly, rappers are thrillionaires, not willionaires.)

But Hirshman says Samuel's distinctions are meaningful. And not just because a JPMorgan adviser will think to offer a coolionaire advice on how to choose an art consultant rather than how to trick out a Ferrari. "It's about dealing with them and connecting with them on a personal level," says Hirshman. "The overall goal is to bring up the satisfaction level of your service." If a thirsty thrillionaire comes into your office, you better serve him bottled water in crystal. By contrast, a realionaire won't be fazed if you present him with tap water in a paper cup.

Samuel doesn't make any moral distinctions among the archetypes. But it's pretty clear there's a hierarchy, from a social perspective and from a business one. If you're in the asset-management business for the long term, you want people who are going to save and invest for the long term (realionaires and willionaires) rather than ones who are going to blow their cash on Maseratis and young third wives (thrillionaires), Jeff Koons sculptures (coolionaires), or personal yoga instructors (wellionaires).

Samuel first identified the five archetypes in 2000. And he notes a change in the mix since then. As baby boomers age and their minds become filled with thoughts of mortality, we're starting to see more wellionaires and willionaires, and fewer thrillionaires.

Samuel and Hirshman note that the archetypes aren't mutually exclusive. And of course, the truly outstanding millionaires—i.e., billionaires—can transcend the categories. Larry Ellison of Oracle, with his giant yachts and Japanese-style compound, is clearly equal parts thrillionaire and wellionaire; Bill Gates, with his Friday-casual khakis and massive foundation, is a little bit realionaire and a little bit willionaire.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.