The Profile: The millionaires’ magician & the luxury car detective

When I was the editor-in-chief of my college newspaper, I accidentally led a mass walkout.

It wasn’t planned. I just had to make an ethical decision on the spot — do I stay in a job I love but do something I felt was wrong? Or do I resign and take a stand? (Spoiler: I chose the latter.)

Long story short: University of Georgia’s student paper The Red & Black is completely independent, meaning it relies on advertising for its income, receives no funding from the university, and pays the student reporters who work there. When a rogue board member came into the newsroom and threatened the students’ editorial control, my colleagues and I took a stand.

I called our daily meeting in August 2012, and told the staff I would be stepping down as the editor-in-chief because I wouldn’t let them take away the newspaper’s independence under my purview. One by one, the entire staff resigned on the spot, and it turned into a mass walkout. 

The story went viral, and it was picked up by national news outlets. Long story short: We re-gained control, and all ended well. The point of this is that even though I was literally 20 years old when this happened, I still carry with me the following lesson: No matter the pressure, you have to be stubborn about doing the right thing. 

I was reminded of this because I recently watched “Flash of Genius” on Netflix. It’s a film based on the true story of Bob Kearns, a college professor who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. (Sounds boring, but I promise you it’s absolutely riveting.) 

The movie begins with Kearns delivering a lecture to his college engineering class. He says:

“I can’t think of a job or a career where the understanding of ethics is more important than engineering.

“Who designed the artificial aortic heart valve? An engineer did that. And who designed the gas chambers at Auschwitz? An engineer did that too.

“One man was responsible for helping save tens of thousands of lives, another man helped kill millions. 

“Now, I don’t know what any of you are gonna end up doing in your lives, but I can guarantee you that there will come a day when you have a decision to make. And it won’t be as easy as deciding between a heart valve and a gas chamber.”

After the Ford Motor Company infringes on his patents in a very dramatic way, Kearns turns down tens of millions of dollars in settlement money and takes on one of the most powerful corporations in the country — by himself.

At one point, his friend tells him, “I mean, Jesus Christ, Bob. It’s just a windshield wiper.” And he responds with: “To you, maybe. But to me, it’s the Mona Lisa.” 

And we all have a Mona Lisa in our lives. 

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The profiles this week are all excellent:

The millionaires’ magician [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**]
The luxury car detective
The inmate-turned-millionaire-turned lone survivor
The entrepreneur fending off WeWork
— The music icon getting her due
The sparkling water empire
The billionaire’s passion project
— The millionaire building a blockchain utopia


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PEOPLE TO KNOW.

The millionaires’ magician: Steve Cohen, who is also known as the Millionaires' Magician, has made a killing doing parlor magic for the 1 percent. Warren Buffett has flown him out to his home. He’s performed for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the Queen of Morocco. The rich, Cohen figures, want to see the impossible, feats of wonderment that money seemingly cannot buy. (The New Republic)

“They’re not in control of this moment, and they want to see where it takes them. And I think that’s what someone who has anything and everything so wants.”

The luxury car detective: Joe Ford, a self-employed car detective, searches the world for stolen rare automobiles on the black market. The case he’s on now could set him up for life—if he’s not outsmarted by a skilled network of criminals and cheats. Check out this twisted, worldwide hunt for a $7 million stolen Ford Talbot Lago. (Esquire)

“The FBI says this is the most fun case they’ve ever worked—and I’m going to help them solve it.”

The inmate-turned-millionaire-turned lone survivor: What a story. After two prison sentences, Michael Powers pieced together a new life. He launched a thriving business that literally helped build Seattle — a construction company that these days hauls in some $20 million a year. Finally, after all of his ups and downs, a fatal boating accident came for Powers’s fairy-tale ending. (Seattle Met)

“Just take me to jail. Just put me in a cell.”

The entrepreneur fending off WeWork: Kong Wan Sing walked away from a merger he needed to keep his Singapore-based co-working space operator, JustCo, from being gobbled up by the likes of giant rival WeWork. But as he conducted his due diligence, Kong started to see cracks in the relationship. He rejected the advice of shareholders & made the decision to go it alone. Here’s the story of how Kong was able to overcome a $600 million M&A disaster and turn his company into one of Asia’s fastest-growing startups. (Forbes)

“If I don’t merge to get bigger, I get consolidated or I get killed off.”

The music icon getting her due: At age 51, Céline Dion is wrapping up her Vegas residency with a world tour, an album, and two movies in the works. Why has it taken 40 years for one of the world’s most talented singer to finally become cool? This story tries to understand Céline’s resurgence after a lifetime of fame through the perspective of her many impersonators. (The Walrus)

“She’s had a total metamorphosis—caterpillar to butterfly. She came to Vegas and turned into this goddess.”

COMPANIES TO WATCH.

The sparkling water empire: I have lost so many friends to the cult of LaCroix. The fizzy water maker’s sales have jumped almost eightfold in recent years thanks to their colorful, Instagram-worthy cans and zero-additive innocence. But now competitors are swarming, and LaCroix is losing ground to big soda companies. As this article puts it, “The siege phase of the water wars has begun, and LaCroix is behind the castle walls.” (Bloomberg)

“We’re LaCroix. They need us more than we need them.”

The billionaire’s passion project: The controversy over SolarCity, which has dovetailed with questions about Elon Musk’s mountain of debt and profit shortfalls, offers a window into the mind-set of America’s most outlandish and unpredictable CEO. Musk’s believers argue that the details of his ventures don’t matter: It’s the grand vision that counts. But in the case of SolarCity, Musk’s penchant for making promises he can’t deliver on turned out to matter a great deal—and could even pose a threat to his entire empire. (Vanity Fair)

“It was shoot first and aim later. There was a lot of machismo going on: bigger, better, badder, faster.”

THROWBACK.

The millionaire building a blockchain utopia: Jeffrey Burns became a millionaire in the cryptocurrency boom, and he’s using his money to build a blockchain utopia across 67,000 acres in Reno, Nevada. So far, Burns has spent $300 million to build an experimental community where everyone’s ownership rights & voting powers will be recorded in a digital wallet. His ambitious plans involve a town, an e-gaming arena, underground vaults and lots of blockchain. (The New York Times)

“This will either be the biggest thing ever, or the most spectacular crash and burn in the history of mankind. I believe it’s the former, but either way it’s going to be one hell of a ride.”