Today: Orphaned at 4 and with just a 3rd grade education, how Ben Weingart later made a fortune.
Born in 1888, Ben was just 4 years old when his mother left him at the Hebrew Orphans Asylum in Atlanta with his little brothers Max, 2 and Harry, an infant. He would later learn his father died of “consumption” and his mother was alone, penniless and dying.
At 6, Ben was adopted by a Mrs. Miller, who with her daughter and grandchildren sharecropped the land they rented. Sharecropping is a hard life, often offering little more than a tiny barebones home and just enough to eat, in exchange for backbreaking work.
One of Mrs. Miller’s grandchildren was a girl with polio who wore steel braces on her crippled little legs and Ben became very protective of her. He worked in the fields as hard as at least 2 people to help carry her load. Meals for the family were often bread and water and if all went well, some vegetables. Lunch was usually an apple.
This hard work and hunger gave Ben a powerful incentive to succeed and his compassion for this crippled girl and for others who were down and out would last him a lifetime.
At the age of 8, Ben would arise early each morning and on the way to school, he did odd jobs for the owner of a candy store. He used the money the owner paid him to buy candy, which he would take to school and sell it to other kids, tripling his money.
This simple act of controlling his costs, getting to know his customers and buying and selling and reinvesting his profits would later make him a vastly wealthy man, as you will see.
At school, some kids picked on his crippled sister leaving her in tears. Ben would not tolerate it and often got in fist fights. At the age of 8 he was expelled from school, which ended his formal education. For the rest of his life, he self-educated, becoming an avid reader.
When Ben was 10, the family moved to Detroit hoping for a better life and Ben got a 12 hour a day, 6 day per week job pushing clothing carts in the downtown garment district. The money he earned was vital to the family.
Five years later, 15 year old Ben was ready to go out on his own. The St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 offered him the opportunity and he left for St. Louis. Work was plentiful and he got a job driving a horse drawn laundry truck.
Ben focused on the hotels including the red-light district, where a high volume of clean linens was always necessary, arising at 5 am to do his laundry pickups. By the time his competitors began at 8 am, he already had cornered a big piece of the market.
Two years later, Ben decided fast growing California offered even better opportunity and in 1906, at nearly 18, he tucked his few belongings under his arm and hopped on to a railroad boxcar and came west, first to San Francisco and then Los Angeles.
When Ben arrived in Los Angeles he was broke. He found a home by convincing a landlord to give him a tiny place to stay in exchange for cleaning and maintaining the landlord’s properties.
Needing to eat, Ben went to local bars that for the price of a 10 cent beer, let patrons eat a “free” lunch. He introduced himself to beer drinkers and with their permission hungrily ate the free meal they were entitled to.
One of those patrons was so impressed by Ben; he hired him to deliver laundry from a horse and buggy for his Diamond Laundry Company. Ben saved his earnings and just as he had reinvested his school candy money, he did the same by buying into Diamond.
In a few years, Ben owned the company. Under his leadership, the firm grew quickly by targeting a huge niche, the one he learned to service in St. Louis: hotels.
Ben soon got to know the hotel owners and learned their business. One owner was so impressed with Ben; he hired him to manage some of his hotels, a job Ben agreed to take only if he could be paid in profit sharing.
It was great for the owner. Ben bet on his own abilities and was so confident he would take no salary, just payments from profits. If he did well, so would the owner. Ben made it very profitable for them both by cutting costs which let him underprice his competition and offer low prices for nice clean rooms. This attracted plenty of customers.
Living frugally Ben used most of the money he made to buy into some of the hotels, a partnership the owner loved, confident they would both make big money and they did. Now a successful hotel owner and successful in the laundry business, Ben knew which hotel owners could not pay their laundry bills and he found ways to help them, in which they and he could benefit.
No hotel can survive without fresh linens and Ben would forgive past due bills and provide fresh linens in exchange for ownership in the hotel, often with an option to buy at a low price. But if the hotel still lost money, he would meet with the mortgage holder and persuade him to write off part of the mortgage, thus slashing the overhead and making the hotel profitable.
Meanwhile, Ben developed another successful business. Big banks loaned to the wealthy and to large companies. But Ben loaned to small businesspeople at terms they could afford. And as they prospered, he did too.
Even with all of this success, Ben still lived modestly, living in a boardinghouse and often eating a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
In his personal life, Ben dated Stella Shobe, the daughter of the boardinghouse owner. Unlike Ben she was well educated and refined, traits he admired. They married on April 23rd, 1917 when he was 28 and she was 35. They would remain married for the next 40 years until her passing at 75 in 1957. The couple was never blessed with children.
In the 1920’s, Los Angeles went through a spectacular growth. With its beautiful sunny and mild weather and plenty of inexpensive land, it attracted the movie and entertainment companies that became Hollywood and Donald Douglas, Jack Northrop and the Lockheed brothers built what became the aerospace industry.
Those fast growing new industries attracted tens of thousands of people and Ben’s real estate and businesses skyrocketed. At the age of 41, after 23 years of hard work and sacrifice he had become vastly wealthy, and a very long way from the dire poverty of his youth.
But suddenly in 1929 Ben’s success came crashing down with the abrupt collapse of the stock markets. Like most of America and much of the world, all of a sudden he was struggling just to pay his bills.
In the next KazanToday:
What happened next? Would Ben rebuild his fortune? And if so, how?