Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Book Review: The Eccentric Billionaire

In the early 1970s, John D MacArthur was one of only five American billionaires. Far less has been written about MacArthur than his four contemporaries (Howard Hughes, J Paul Getty, D K Ludwig and H L Hunt). To a large extent this is because MacArthur's story is far less colourful than the other leading tycoons of his day. This does not make MacArthur either uninteresting or uneducational. While Nancy Kriplen's biography provides a very readable summary of MacArthur, it feels somewhat light on detail and the anecdotes that often illustrate the character of the subject.

After a relatively lower class (but not impoverished) childhood, followed one of his elder brothers into the insurance business working as an insurance salesman before eventually buying his own insurance company and growing Banker's Life and Casualty into one of the larger insurance companies in America. Profits from his insurance business were reinvested in real estate. The rise of MacArthur's business empire and his eventual decision to leave the bulk of his fortune to charity (allegedly to reduce the amount of his estate that would be lost in taxes) are covered in sufficient detail.

At a personal level, the biography conveys some measure of what MacArthur was like as a man: driven, frugal in the extreme, dysfunctional as a family man, generous to people he liked, litigious and so on.

However, at the end of this relatively short book (the main text is only 175 pages long) I was left with the impression that I had been presented with a summary of the man and not a detailed study of his life. In short, while I learned a little bit about MacArthur, I was disappointed at the lack of depth.

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