TBT - THE TROUBLE WITH BILLIONAIRES AND HURRICANES.

Everyone knows that millionaires are a dime a dozen these days - we all personally know someone in that category. But maybe not so at the billionaire level. I have knowing been involved with three in my lifetime, all under interesting circumstances.

The first time was in Honduras in the '70s. Billionaire Daniel Ludwig, who's fortune started with bootlegging rum during Prohibition, had sent an associate to La Ceiba to sniff out deals in Central America, and I ran into him there at a popular gentleman's club. We talked about the recent military coup in Honduras and my connections to the new people running the country. The subject of gambling casino concessions in the country came up and I told him I could get the one for the town of Trujillo (the only place where Columbus actually stepped on the mainland of the New World). The whole region around Trujillo and Puerto Castillo could be developed into a super resort and cruise port - with the casino anchoring the deal. They loved the concept and took the deal to Ludwig.

The whole thing fell apart after Hurricane Fifi in 1974 devastated the north coast of Honduras - and then there was the '78 oil crisis and the subsequent worldwide economic turmoil from that event. Billionaires can be as risk adverse as anyone - but evidently he was not that risk adverse because Ludwig did move ahead in '78 on his 'Jari Project' in Brazil. He had purchased 1.6 million acres on a tributary of the Amazon River in 1967 to be made into a tree farm for paper pulp production. The Brazil project failed - maybe he should have stuck to our Honduran project?!

The second involvement with a billionaire was up close and personal. Barbara and I had left Miami after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and settled on the island of Koror, Palau, in Micronesia. We had been in the marine tropical fish business for a few years and took an offer to work with an existing operation on this island in Micronesia. After a short time as manager I met a local that wanted to go in with Barbara and I to buy out the operation to run for ourselves. We did not want a JOB - we wanted to be in business for ourselves again.

The principle owner of the tropical fish export operation was billionaire Willie Tan. Willie and his family was into most every type of money making venture, legal or not, in Guam and the other American Trust Territories of the Pacific in the '90's. Most of their fortune coming from abusive sweatshops scattered throughout the islands. My partner, Shinji Chibana, and I sat with Willie in the outdoor area of the restaurant in the swank 'Palau Pacific Resort' and hammered out a deal to buy his tropical fish export operation in less then an hour. Obviously this was not a profitable enough business for him. Shinji and I were not aware of all the bills and lobbyists Willie Tan had to pay for at that time - millions of dollars in fines for cheating laborers in his sweatshops and Jack Abramoff who was lobbying the Washington Republicans that protected his business interests in this corner of the world.

This last billionaire is so secretive that he makes the reclusive Howard Hughes look like a social gadfly. He is so frugal that he makes Scrooge McDuck look like a spend thrift. I have known Manolo for almost 40 years. He was a mere millionaire when Charlie MacGowan and I first met him in his Central American office. At first Manolo had taken an interest in our exotic animal export business, and then he and Charlie eventually became great friends. So through my long friendship with Charlie I often had the opportunity to spent time with Manolo and study this truly unique individual.

Several times the three of us went to the flea market in Ft. Lauderdale so Manolo could negotiate and buy some used goods for furnishing one of his houses in Honduras. Charlie and I would laugh about how he would use tea bags to dye his hair - and when the price of gasoline was over $3/gallon he would insist on us turning the car motor off at stop lights! His biggest setback was Hurricane Mitch in Central America. The Choluteca River flooded and washed a large number of his 40' container trailers to the sea. In them were several thousand 5 gallon buckets full of seedless watermelon seeds - hundreds of dollars worth of seeds per bucket. For weeks afterwords native beach combers were gleefully finding these buckets washed ashore and dumping out the still dry seeds so that they could take the treasured new buckets home!

They say behind every great fortune there is a great crime.

For me - behind most big career moves there was a big hurricane: Fifi - Andrew - Wilma.