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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

In Market: Want to be a Texas billionaire? One word – “pipelines”

When I began covering the computer industry for Datamation magazine in the mid-1980s, my job was to make inroads into the then-burgeoning PC industry. Remember those clunky, boat anchor desktops with screens we wouldn’t allow our lowliest employee to use today? They were all the rage.

One of the ways I made inroads was to attend some local PC enthusiast events. I was based in Dallas and reached out to the local user group. This was in the days before PCs were ubiquitous on every desktop and many of those enthusiasts were considered upstart punks wanting to disrupt control from the ivory tower IT managers who would tell you when, where and how you could have your software applications, thank you very much.

The local group invited me to their Saturday event at Infomart, where the special guest was one Bill Gates. While well-known in the world of computing, Gates was hardly a household name at the time. He was just another 30-something tech entrepreneur who had done well. The computer industry was littered with them like so many chad strips from old tractor-fed printer paper. After the meeting, I got a few minutes with Gates, no problem. We had a friendly chat – if you define friendly to mean he grew exasperated at my questions after quickly sizing me up as not being his technical equal. Windows 3.0, the first to incorporate a graphical user interface or GUI, was about to be released and things – and fortunes – were about to change.

About six years later, I was reporting from an event in Houston put on by Compaq Computer and the guest was again Bill Gates. Now he was well-known, a household name and famous for being – not just a technical genius and leader of Microsoft – but rich. I asked to speak to Gates after his talk and you would have thought I had requested a one-on-one with the pope. Or maybe even at a higher level that that.

To satisfy our editor, another reporter and I finally negotiated a brief “walk and talk” with Gates between other meetings. We cobbled together a story that sounded like we had spent a couple of hours with the software billionaire, not a few minutes. Later, the other reporter noted that after becoming known as one of the world’s richest men, Gates was now like a circus sideshow. “Everybody wants to say they’ve seen the richest man in the world,” she said.

What had happened to the guy who stared me down when I asked a question that didn’t pass his technical threshold? He had gone from being a geek who could write code and run a company to a guy people pointed at like the “wolf” man in the sideshow.

This week, Forbes magazine published the 32nd annual list of circus sideshow acts known as billionaires. My Infomart buddy Bill Gates is now No. 2, worth $90 billion. At No. 1 is Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Washington Post fame. Bezos was apparently in North Texas last week as part of his visits to potential sites for Amazon’s HQ2. His every move is being scrutinized for some sign that he likes one area over the other, much like popes in the days of yore.

There are 52 billionaires from Texas (same as the number of cards in a deck), according to the latest Forbes list and, among the top 10, half gained their cheddar via some involvement with pipelines.

Fort Worth’s Alice Walton, whose pipeline to wealth is Wal-Mart, comes in on top in Texas with a net worth of $46 billion, up from $38.2 billion when Forbes ranked the richest Americans just last year.

Walton, the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, is No. 16 among the world’s 2,208 billionaires. Coming in at No. 2 in Texas is Michael Dell, founder of Dell Technologies, who began building PCs in his dorm room at the University of Texas and now has a net worth estimated at $22.7 billion. He could buy that dorm room and more.

The pipeliners in the top 10 for Texas wealth include Richard Kinder, Dannine Avara, Scott Duncan, Milane Frantz and Randa Williams.

There are plenty of Fort Worth connections, several with the last name of Bass. Investor Robert Bass is No. 404 on the list with $4.9 billion. Brother Sid Bass is No. 703 on the list with a net worth of $3.3 billion, followed by Ed Bass and Lee Bass, both at No. 965 with a net worth of $2.5 billion each.

Fort Worth’s David Bonderman, who has made his fortune as the leader of investment firm TPG, is at No. 924 with $2.6 billion. Others with Fort Worth ties include H. Ross Perot Jr. who oversees Hillwood’s developments, including AllianceTexas, and comes in at No. 1157 with a net worth of $2.1 billion. Despite a paltry playoff record, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones come in at No. 75 on the list, with a net worth of $5.6 billion.

Warren Buffett, the “Oracle of Omaha: who has some Texas ties with his many investments, is worth $84 billion, and is No. 3 on the list. Rounding out the top five is another billionaire with some Fort Worth ties, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, worth $71 billion.

Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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