That got Jones thinking. What his friend did is what people have been doing for millennia: pointing out the richest man in town. Sometimes people just want to know out of curiosity; other times it's because they think such proximity to wealth might present an opportunity. And, of course, the scale of the wealth in question might vary widely. What might pass for rich in a small town in Georgia may seem like a rounding error when compared with the net worth of billionaires such as Microsoft (MSFT) founder Bill Gates or Berkshire Hathaway's (BRKA) Warren Buffett.
So Jones got out a map and began identifying the largest metro areas in the U.S., then set out on a two-year search to find out who the richest men were. He spent more than two years interviewing local business editors, and business and community leaders in 100 towns across America in an effort to uncover their wealthiest citizens. In addition, he and a team of researchers combed through all available public data, including SEC filings, LexisNexis, EDGAR, and newspaper and magazine accounts. He even "Zillowed" their homes to determine their valuations.
Some of these individuals, like Gates, were well-known. His $40 billion fortune has established him as the richest man in Seattle, if not the world, for more than a decade. But what about the richest man in Spokane, Washington State's second-biggest city? According to Jones, it is Harlan D. Douglass, the largest real estate developer in town, who also sits on the board of Northwest Bank (NBCT) and invests in local companies such as Eagle Hardware & Garden. Bet you didn't know that.
In his new book The Richest Man in Town (Business Plus, 2009), Jones has come up with a list of the 100 richest people by town in the largest cities in almost every state in the U.S. "The media in general and the business press in particular is guilty of focusing too much on New York or San Francisco," says Jones. "There are success stories everywhere. I wanted to paint a true portrait of American wealth."
Women on the List, TooIt is important to point out that these are not the richest people in the U.S. Jones only picked the wealthiest individual in the biggest towns. If you were the second-richest person in town, you didn't make the cut.
Despite the title, there are women on Jones' list, too. Women such as Boulder, Colo.'s Judi Paul, the co-founder of Renaissance Learning (RLRN), and Indianapolis' "time-share queen" Christell DeHaan, the founder of Resort Condominiums International, the largest vacation exchange company in the world. (Jones explains that his editor thought the title The Richest Person in Town, while more accurate, wouldn't have the same punch.)
According to Jones, the average Richest Man in Town (RMITs, as he calls them) has a net worth of more than $3.5 billion, and 50 of the 100 people he identified were billionaires when his book went to the printers.