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Aug 20, 2015 2:10 PM

Flamboyant Trump evolved into cautious businessman

The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) Donald Trump sells himself as a bold empire-builder, the kind of businessman who could force through big changes in Washington as president.

Yet for all his bravado "I've done an amazing job," the Republican White House hopeful boasted during his announcement speech a review of the billionaire's financial filings and recent deals suggests he's no swashbuckler.

Trump is reluctant to take on debt after it nearly ruined him in the 1990s. He holds few stocks for someone of his wealth and has grown increasingly dependent on making money by lending out his name to others rather than developing real estate himself.

"People think of him as big. They see the Trump name around the world. But that's not his money," says Don Peebles, a real estate developer who oversees a $5 billion real estate portfolio. "He's not taking big risks."

That's not a knock.

Peebles calls Trump a "pioneer," praising his move into a nearly risk-free business. In an industry prone to booms and bust, say branding experts and rival developers, it's a shrewd shift that only someone with Trump's name recognition could pull off. In essence, Trump gets a stream of fees without risking any of his own money.

But it's not the image that Trump is projecting as a candidate for president, given that his White House campaign is built around his prowess in the boardroom. The candidate's company, the Trump Organization, rejects any suggestion he's playing it safe.

"We have been major buyers of properties," said the candidate's son, Eric Trump, who oversees real estate development and acquisitions at the Trump Organization. "We believe in owning dirt."

A few hoteliers had created buzz by putting their names on buildings think Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels when Donald Trump was getting his start in the 1970s, but the idea hadn't really caught on in luxury residential real estate. Trump made it work, thanks to unabashed love of glitz and glamour and some good timing.

He broke ground on New York's Trump Tower in 1980, just before New York City's resurgence from near bankruptcy and the start of the longest bull stock market in history. He bought and built more and diversified into airlines and casinos all with his name leading the way.

Then boom turned bust in the late 80s, and Trump lost nearly everything. Unable to pay back billions of dollars of debt, he threatened to tie up lenders in court, threw two of his casinos into bankruptcy, cut a series of deals that erased most of his personal liability, then began buying and building once again.

In 2001, he completed the 90-story Trump World Tower, a residential building across from the United Nations in New York. Three years later, he launched his runaway TV hit "The Apprentice" and his brand began to take off as a business in and of itself. Today you can buy a myriad of Trump-labeled products, including cologne and cufflinks, men's suits and furniture and fragrances.

Not all the branding deals have gone smoothly. Condo buyers in failed Trump-named properties in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Baja, Mexico, have claimed in lawsuits that the billionaire misled them into believing he was more involved in the projects than just lending his name. Trump won the Fort Lauderdale case and settled the one in Baja.

It's difficult to know how much risk Trump is taking with his money today, because it's not clear how much he's got.

In a recently released list of assets, he estimated his worth at $8.7 billion more than double the figure calculated by Forbes magazine, which has been tracking his wealth for three decades. Trump pegged the biggest line item as "real estate licensing deals, brand and branded developments" worth $3.3 billion or nearly 40 percent of his net worth.

One area where Trump is digging into his own pocket is golf resorts. Last year, he bought Ireland's Doonbeg club on the Atlantic coast and Scotland's Turnberry Resort, the site of several British Opens and the 17th course in his collection.

Eric Trump says the golf ventures are doing "fantastically" well. Others aren't so sure, noting that club membership and play in general have dropped since the financial crisis.

"It's is not a booming business and yet he wants us to believe that his is," says Ron Whitten, a senior editor at Golf Digest. If Trump is making money on his golf clubs, Whitten says, "he is the only one doing that."


Associated Press writer Jeff Horwitz in Washington and Jill Colvin in Newark, New Jersey, contributed to this report.


Follow Bernard Condon on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/BernardFCondon


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