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Florida billionaires may grow ever richer, but megafortunes are rising elsewhere

Those wealthiest-of-all folks making up the 1 percent of the 1 percent? They're doing very well, thank you very much, with 36 Florida billionaires making the latest Forbes 400 list of richest Americans. As Forbes seems to say every year: It's harder than ever to join the 400.

The big trend I see, having covered the rise of Florida billionaires for many years, is that the Forbes 400 is splitting more and more between basic, rich billionaires — those, say, with less than $10 billion or so — and the fantastically wealthy billionaires. The still-young Jeff Bezos at Amazon or Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, for example, still see their billions accelerating as they grow successful, game-changing business empires.

One red flag: The vast bulk of Florida's richest did not build their fortunes in the Sunshine State. Instead, they moved here with their fortunes to retire, play golf, perhaps to dabble in business investing, but certainly to enjoy the state's low taxes on income and inheritance. Here are a 10 nuggets about Florida's uber-rich 36 who made the Forbes 400 list for 2015.

1 New guy at the top

At No. 33 on the Forbes list with $13.5 billion, Thomas Peterffy, 71, topples Carnival Cruise chief Mickey Arison from his long-held title as Florida's richest billionaire. Peterffy was a pioneer in digital stock trading and runs brokerage business Interactive Brokers Group. He recently relocated to Palm Beach after listing his 80-acre Conyers Farm estate for $65 million as the largest and the most expensive home for sale in upscale Greenwich, Conn.

2 Not a young billionaire's state

At 45, energy drink czar Russ Weiner of Delray Beach is Florida's youngest billionaire. But there are 29 younger folks on the Forbes 400 list living elsewhere (18 of those 29 live in California, no surprise). Weiner is the founder of Rockstar Energy Drink. While his brand runs well behind Monster and Red Bull energy drinks, Rockstar must be doing well enough to boost Weiner's wealth to $3.4 billion, ranking him at No. 182, up sharply from No. 249 last year.

3 Fat wallet via slimming

Slim-Fast diet drink founder S. Daniel Abraham now rules as Florida's oldest billionaire at 91. He spends his time in Palm Beach encouraging a two-state peace solution between Israel and Palestine. Let's hope he sees progress in the days ahead.

4 Florida's men-only club

While Florida boasts 36, or 9 percent, of the Forbes 400 billionaires in the country, none of them here is a woman. Overall, the Forbes 400 includes 46 women, all of whom live elsewhere. The richest woman is Alice Walton in Fort Worth, Texas, of Walmart family wealth, ranked No. 18 with $32 billion. Female billionaires live in Florida, but their wealth simply does not make the Forbes 400 cut. Carol Jenkins Barnett, part of the Publix family fortune, is worth $1.69 billion. Another female billionaire, Neerja Sethi, 60, co-founded IT/outsourcing company Syntel with husband Bharat Desai (he did make the Forbes list with $2.5 billion). They live on South Florida's Fisher Island, but the $1.1 billion that she claims is too small to qualify her for the Forbes 400. Maybe next year.

5 Where did the women go?

Florida used to have a few female billionaires, though most of them inherited the money from their families or husbands. One woman who made the Florida list several times was Charlotte Colket Weber, who called Ocala her home. Now her $1.5 billion inherited from the Campbell Soup company is too small to make the list.

6 Where are the Glazers?

While Palm Beach patriarch Malcolm Glazer lived, his sports empire that included the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Manchester United and a bunch of real estate placed him well up in the Forbes 400 rankings in Florida. His death in 2014, however, apparently spread the vast wealth among his kids, so much so that none of the next Glazer generation made the elite billionaires' list. Given the rise in value of publicly traded "ManU" and the skyrocketing appreciation of all NFL franchises, someone in the Glazer family may be back on the list in the future.

7 About as rich as Venezuela

Add up all the billions owned by Florida's 36 members of the Forbes 400 and their combined wealth totals almost $129 billion. That's about the size of Venezuela's annual gross domestic product. That also means the average wealth of the Florida billionaires is $3.57 billion — substantially less than the national average of $5.8 billion. The combined fortunes of the nation's No. 1 billionaire Bill Gates ($76 billion) and No. 2 Warren Buffett ($62 billion) are worth $138 billion, more than all of Florida's Forbes 400 members.

8 Really big money does not live in Florida

Altogether, the 400 wealthiest Americans are worth $2.34 trillion, up $50 billion from a year ago. That makes the combined fortunes of the 36 Florida billionaires equal to less than 6 percent of the Forbes 400 wealth. So where do the richest of the rich live? Near where they made their money in technology, investing or retail. Wealthiest-of-all Bill Gates lives in Washington state, as does Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The increase alone in Bezos' wealth in the past year was $16.5 billion, more than anybody else, and larger than the entire fortune of Florida's richest individual — Thomas Peterffy.

9 When even modest billionaires were rare.

Back in 2003, I wrote about the Forbes list of the 10, and only 10, billionaires who at the time called Florida home. Their combined wealth back then was a mere $15.3 billion. A dozen years ago, nobody on Florida's Gulf Coast even qualified as a billionaire. Now Tampa Bay has three: shopping center magnate Edward DeBartolo Jr., 68, ranked at No. 194 (down from No. 183 last year) with $3.5 billion and Kenneth Feld, 66, of Feld Entertainment and the Ringling Brothers circus, with $1.8 billion at No. 375 (also down from last year, when he was No. 353). In St. Petersburg, Ashley Furniture empire builder Ron Wanek, 74, is worth $1.83 billion and ranked No. 358 (down from No. 340 in 2014). Even Naples is growing billionaires: Shahid Khan, 65 and owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, is worth $5.6 billion; Reinhold Schmieding, 60 and founder of medical device maker Arthrex, is valued at $4.1 billion; and Tom Golisano, 74 and founder of the Paychex payroll business, is worth $2.3 billion.

10 How did they do it?

The bulk of Florida's 36 billionaires made most of their wealth in one of three ways: finance and investing, real estate or retail. Florida's billionaire list, for example, includes Best Buy chairman and largest shareholder Richard Schulze, 74, worth $2.7 billion and living in Bonita Springs, as well as Edward Lampert, 53, of Miami Beach and worth $2.7 billion, who is best known for his lengthy and not-too-successful effort to turn around one of America's oldest retailers: Sears. Other billionaires earned their bucks in pharmaceuticals, energy, food, sports, business services and entertainment.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

Florida billionaires may grow ever richer, but megafortunes are rising elsewhere 10/16/15 [Last modified: Friday, October 16, 2015 7:10pm]
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