Forbes launched its definitive ranking of the nation’s superrich in 1982. Back then the price of admission into this most exclusive of clubs was a mere $75 million of net worth. Even after adjusting for inflation, this year’s entry fee ($1.1 billion) is roughly ten times what it was thirty years ago. There were just 13 billionaires at the time and the total worth of the 400 club was a mere $93 billion. Today the combined net worth of the 400 richest Americans is $1.7 trillion, up from $1.5 trillion a year ago. The average net worth of a Forbes 400 member is a staggering $4.2 billion, up from $3.8 billion, and the highest in at least a decade, as two-thirds of the individuals added to their fortunes in the past year.
There has been much discussion of late about the widening gap between rich and poor and what role the wealthiest Americans should play in fixing society’s ills, and how much taxes they should pay. This list on the surface will perhaps exacerbate these concerns, but a deeper analysis instills confidence that the American dream is still very much alive. Seventy percent of the Forbes 400 members made their fortunes entirely from scratch; of the 20 newcomers who climbed into the ranks, only four inherited (including Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, who is the richest newcomer with a net worth of $11 billion). Each of these people’s success has a ripple effect. Consider Andrew and Peggy Cherng, the founders of restaurant chain Panda Express, who debut with a combined net worth of $2 billion. Their restaurants employ approximately 21,000 people. The gas and convenience stores owned by Tom and Judy Love, also new entrants, employ another 10,000. Other notable newcomers showing there is no shortage of ingenious ideas are Under Armour’s Kevin Plank, 5-Hour Energy’s Manoj Bhargava and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, who gets the bulk of his fortune not from social media but from his mobile bill payment company Square.
The country’s three richest entrepreneurs continue to add billions to their net worth, even as they give money away. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison, who hold onto their respective spots at numbers 1, 2 and 3, were up $7 billion, $7 billion and $8 billion, respectively. Ellison’s $8 billion jump was the biggest dollar gain of anyone on the list this year.
While winners outnumbered losers by nearly four to one, there were some stunning drops. No one fell more dramatically than Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, whose fortune stumbled $8.1 billion, making him the year’s biggest loser. He is still $2.5 billion richer than he was two years ago and he’s handily entrenched in the ranks. Not true for some of his other social media brethren who marched onto The Forbes 400 a year ago and have since retreated. Among this year’s 25 drop-offs (another 7 passed away) are Groupon’s Eric Lefkofsky, Zynga’s Mark Pincus and Facebook’s venture capitalist Jim Breyer (who missed the cut by $50 million. )
Our estimates are a snapshot of each list member’s wealth on August 24, the day we locked in net worth numbers and rankings.
1. Bill Gates
$66 billion (UP)
Residence: Medina, Washington
The planet’s most generous person --he’s given away $28 billion so far -- has a new obsession: building a better toilet for those without water or sewage systems. Every year 1.5 million children die from food and water tainted with fecal matter, more than the annual deaths from AIDS and malaria combined. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also spearheading a malaria vaccine that is showing promise in clinical trials. Gates’ net worth climbed $7 billion since last year on the strength of Microsoft shares, which rose 20%, and on gains from investments in private equity, bonds and stocks such as hygiene tech firm Ecolab and Mexican TV broadcaster Televisa. He continues to sell shares of Microsoft--he shed 80 million in the past year, about 15% of his stake--so that now just one-fifth of his net worth stems from the software company he cofounded 37 years ago. Gates and his good friend Warren Buffett continue to recruit new members to their Giving Pledge—so far 91 people, including 10 new signatories, have taken the pledge to donate at least half of their fortune to charity, in life or death.
2. Warren Buffett
$46 billion (UP)
Source: Berkshire Hathaway
Residence: Omaha, Nebraska
Buffett recently completed radiation treatment for prostate cancer, five months after he notified Berkshire Hathaway shareholders of his condition, assuring them that it was “not remotely life-threatening.” Still, he has gotten his house in order. In December, he chose his farmer son, Howard, as the future non-executive chairman and “guardian of the firm’s values.” In February, he said he’d picked his CEO replacement but has declined to give a name. He’s also stepping up philanthropically. He gave $1.5 billion to the Gates Foundation in July, bringing his total giving to $17.25 billion. On his birthday in August, he pledged $3 billion of stock to his children’s foundations. His fortune is up $7 billion as class A shares jumped more than 20% since last year. After studying under Benjamin Graham at Columbia Business School, Buffett offered to work for his former professor’s investment partnership, Graham-Newman Corporation, for free. According to Buffett, “he turned me down as overvalued.” It was only after several years of “pestering” that the father of value investing agreed to take on the younger man in 1954. When Graham retired two years later, Buffett returned to Nebraska to launch his own partnership. In 1962, Buffett began buying up shares of a struggling textile company called Berkshire Hathaway. Though Buffett has called Berkshire “the dumbest stock” he ever bought, the firm has long since shed its textile assets and today serves as Buffett’s famed investment vehicle. In May, Berkshire snapped up dozens of local newspapers from Media General after announcing a deal for the Omaha World-Herald in November 2011.
3. Larry Ellison
$41 billion (UP)
Residence: Woodside, California
Despite ongoing legal battles with such rivals as SAP, HP and Google, shares of Oracle, the software firm Ellison has run for 35 years, were up 20% in the past 12 months. He was the year’s biggest dollar gainer, adding $8 billion to his net worth. He spent a reported $500 million to buy 98% of Hawaiian island of Lanai from David Murdock in June. His other passion, yachting, is making its mark on San Francisco as anticipation builds for the 2013 America’s Cup. Ellison, who signed on to the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge in 2010, has thus far donated $445 million, mostly via Oracle stock, to his Ellison Medical Foundation, which supports research on aging and age-related diseases. His latest gift to the foundation was 1.6 million shares of Oracle--worth $45 million--in April.
4. Charles Koch (tie)
$31 billion (UP)
Residence: Wichita, Kansas
The head of the nation’s second biggest private company, $115 billion (sales) Koch Industries, Charles Koch continues to pay down debt and generate rich cash flow. By Forbes’ estimates the Wichita, Kansas company, with interests in chemicals, refining and Georgia Pacific, which makes Brawny paper towels and Dixie cups, is now worth $75 billion, pushing up Koch’s own net worth by $6 billion in the past year. A well-known libertarian, he gives $40 million plus a year to his foundation, which gives grants to colleges and universities to study "market-based tools that enable individuals, institutions and societies to prosper." He also helped found the Cato Institute, which he sued last year but the parties settled, and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, both bastions of free-market and libertarian scholarship. And he's busy funding groups designed to raise a new generation of free-market entrepreneurs, including Youth Entrepreneurs Kansas, which teaches entrepreneurship to about 1,000 high school students each year; and the Bill of Rights Institute, which runs programs to educate teachers and students on the importance of the Constitution in "securing our liberty as Americans.”
4. David Koch (tie)
$31 billion (UP)
Residence: New York City
Manhattan’s richest resident David Koch is full of surprises: The New York delegate at the Republican National Convention told Politico that week that he believes in gay marriage and in raising taxes to pay down the federal debt. Earlier in the year, he and his brother Charles had sued the conservative Cato Institute, which they helped found in 1977, over issues of control; the parties later settled. Despite any drama, Koch Industries, the second largest privately held company in the U.S. with interests in pipelines, refineries, fertilizer and consumer products like Brawny paper towel and Dixie cups, continues to generate rich cash flow and pay down debt. David, who is executive vice president, is worth $6 billion more this year thanks to an increase in the company’s value. A prostate cancer survivor, he says his biggest philanthropic contributions so far go toward a “moon shot” campaign to finding a cure for cancer, to which he’s donated more than $200 million.
6. Christy Walton & family
$27.9 billion (UP)
Residence: Jackson, Wyoming
Wal-Mart widow Christy Walton is the richest woman in the United States once again. She inherited her wealth when husband John Walton, a former Green Beret and Vietnam War medic, died in an airplane crash in 2005. John’s investment in First Solar had boosted Christy’s net worth well above the rest of her family, but the stock tanked in 2012, closing her lead to just $1.1 billion (down from $3.4 billion last year) over brother-in-law Jim. The rest of her holdings are in Wal-Mart, the massive retailer founded by her father-in-law Sam Walton and his brother James in 1962. Wal-Mart’s shares are up more than a third since last year, pushing Christy’s net worth up by $3.4 billion.
7. Jim Walton
$26.8 billion (UP)
Residence: Bentonville, Arkansas
Wal-Mart heir Jim Walton is the youngest son of retail visionary Sam (d. 1992), who founded the massive retailer with his brother James, opening a single store in Rogers, Ark. in 1962. Wal-Mart now has sales of $444 billion and employs 2.2 million people worldwide. Since last year, Jim received more than $430 million in dividends after taxes, and the stock is up 36%—boosting his net worth by $5.7 billion. He and his siblings have given about $2 billion to the Walton Family Foundation over the last five years. Jim is also the CEO of his family’s Arvest Bank, which has branches in Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. He gave $100,000 to the Super PAC for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
8. Alice Walton
$26.3 billion (UP)
Residence: Fort Worth, Texas
Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton opened her ambitious Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in November 2011. The museum, which seeks to bring a world-class art experience to Bentonville, Ark., includes works she has donated herself (with a personal collection valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.) Alice and her siblings have also donated about $2 billion to the Walton Family Foundation over the last five years. Daughter of retail visionary Sam, Alice graduated from Trinity College in San Antonio, Tex., and now runs a horse ranch in central Texas. Since last year, she received more than $420 million in dividends after taxes, and the stock is up 36%—boosting her net worth by $5.4 billion.
9. S. Robson Walton
$26.1 billion (UP)
Residence: Bentonville, Arkansas
Wal-Mart heir S. Robson Walton has served as chairman of the board for the massive retailer since 1992. Rob is the eldest son of visionary retailer Sam, a former clerk who opened his first store with help from his brother James in 1962 in Rogers, Ark. Today, Wal-Mart has sales of $444 billion and employs 2.2 million people worldwide. Since last year, Rob received more than $420 million in dividends after taxes, and the stock is up 36%—boosting his net worth by $5.6 billion. Before joining Wal-Mart, he was a partner with the law firm of Conner & Winters in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rob and his siblings have donated about $2 billion to the Walton Family Foundation over the last five years.
10. Michael Bloomberg
$25 billion (UP)
Source: Bloomberg LP
Residence: New York City
New York City’s mayor has been working to enact as much change as he can in his adopted hometown during his final term. A ban he proposed on super-sized sugary drinks will take effect in March, and he was vocal in his support of the state’s Marriage Equality Act, passed in 2011. He’s renewed his call for stricter gun control in the wake of July’s movie theater shootings in Colorado. Over the years, he’s given away $2.8 billion. In 2011, he donated $330 million to groups including the Sierra Club, the Alliance for the Arts and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. At his financial data and media firm, Bloomberg LP, sales popped an estimated 20% in 2011 to $7.6 billion.
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