A million bucks buys you a middle-class life today. Now that’s rich. KATHERINE MACKLEM explores the new meaning of wealth.

August 2 2004


A million bucks buys you a middle-class life today. Now that’s rich. KATHERINE MACKLEM explores the new meaning of wealth.

August 2 2004



A million bucks buys you a middle-class life today. Now that’s rich. KATHERINE MACKLEM explores the new meaning of wealth.





WORTH: “I am a multi-millionaire” HOMES: 10,000-sq.-ft. restored heritage house in Banff,

Alta.; 8,000-sq.-ft. “retreat” in Palm Desert, Calif., near Goldie Hawn’s home CAR: Porsche Boxster, after finding a custommade Ferrari uncomfortable BACKGROUND: daughter of schoolteacher, former beauty queen PHILOSOPHY ABOUT WEALTH: “If I have a choice, I would rather have comfort in this life”

ONE OF THE MOST popular attractions at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto during the ’60s and early '70s was a display of a million dollars in cold hard cash. Silver dollars and paper bills, all in mint condition, were assembled each summer into a new diorama: there was a Million Dollar Money Tree, a Million Dollar Merry-Go-Round, and, one year, the risqué Million Dollar Bubble Bath, featuring svelte models who’d slowly strip behind a screen and appear to slip into a tub. Year after year, visitors crowded around the heavily guarded display, eager to see this awe-inspiring sum of money. There was a draw each evening, too, and a

winner would be pronounced “Millionaire for a Day.” The prize? One day’s interest on a million dollars—or roughly $75.

Today, a family can easily drop $75 in a single outing to the CNE. But in those days, that was almost a week’s salary for the average Canadian. A nice house went for $20,000; a Volkswagen Beetle cost $1,800. Now, the New Beetle costs $25,000 and the average home is $230,000. Similarly, a million bucks isn’t the astronomical sum it used to be—and neither is a millionaire the fantastic, Gatsby-esque figure of the past. A millionaire today may well be the guy next door.

Like Dino De Luca. The 36-year-old married father of two has been making money the hard way ever since his first job pumping gas at his father’s Petro-Canada station. With two partners, he has built a courier and shipping company that’s multiplied its revenues tenfold in the past 12 years. De Luca lives in the Montreal suburb of Kirkland, in a mortgage-free house (paid off in five years!) worth about $400,000. He has a handsome six-figure salary. But despite investments worth about $1 million, including a new tech venture created with

his partners, De Luca wouldn’t call himself rich. “This is upper middle class,” he says.

In an era when real estate agents in exclusive neighbourhoods gossip about million-dollar “starter homes,” when lottery jackpots hit $30 million, when executive compensation approaches the GDPs of some small countries, it’s time to rethink what it means to be rich. It’s a little deflating that a millionaire doesn’t think he fits the bill, especially as that nice, round figure—the sleek one trailed by six big, fat zeros—is firmly lodged in the collective mind as a magical gateway to the world of wealth. Cross that threshold and you’re in. But De Luca is right: a mere million is not enough anymore for membership in the rich club. Not that most Canadians will have to worry personally about that distinction—and many, struggling just to pay the bills, may view the whole discussion as dreaming in Technicolor.

But for the lucky few—and the incorrigibly curious— the question remains: if a millionaire isn’t rich, who is? And what does it mean to be rich? The answers, not surprisingly, depend on whom you talk to.

“I’d feel rich if I could write a million-dollar cheque,”

says Carol Oliver, who has worked on many charity campaigns during her 24-year career as a fundraiser in Toronto. Over the years, she has seen lots of those cheques, but times are changing. “What gets you excited these days,” says Oliver, “is a $5-million or even a $10-million cheque.”

Roughly 325,000 Canadians are worth at least $1 million. The family house isn’t included in that tally; if it were, the ranks of millionaires would at least double, given today’s real estate prices, says Keith Sjögren, a principal with Taddingstone Consulting Group Inc., which surveys Canada’s wealthiest citizens. By far the bulk of Canada’s millionaires—77 per cent—land in the garden-variety category of $1 million to $5 million. Sjögren believes that latter number is what separates the rich from the merely well-off. “If being wealthy means never having to worry where the next penny comes from, then a million dollars isn’t wealthy,” he says. A conservatively invested million would provide a decidedly middle-class income of $50,000 a year. Plus, as investors well know, money in the markets can evaporate fast. “With $5 million, it’s easier to withstand the ravages of the market,” Sjögren says. “It’s that ability to take the punches and not really be affected that constitutes real wealth.”

Jean Blacklock, a Bank of Montreal executive who works with wealthy clients, suggests the threshold is higher: “The people distinguishable from the guy next door have over $5 million—or even over $10 million.” Merrill Lynch, a U.S.-based global bank, lifts the bar further still. With Capgemini, Merrill produces an annual study of what it calls the world’s HNWIs (high net worth individuals), or people with US$1 million above and beyond their homes. For the bank, the truly wealthy are the “ultra-HNWIs”—there are 70,000 of them in the world—who have US$30 million or more.

TRADITIONALLY, Canada’s millionaires have made their money in one of two ways: by inheriting it or by making a good income and investing it well. That’s changing. The fastest growing group of wealthy Canadians are the entrepreneurs, Sjögren says. And none capture the imagination more than the kids who made millions in the tech boom.

“My friends call me le roi de l'Internet,” says Eric Boyko, a 34-yearold Montrealer who describes himself as “one of those dot-com guys.” His story is straight out of tech-start-up lore. In October 1999,


WORTH: $5 million to $10 million HOME: $500,000 penthouse condo on Nun’s Island in Montreal CAR: Porsche Carrera 4 Turbo, red NICKNAME: “Le roi de l’Internet" HOBBIES: travel (monthly trips), mountain climbing PHILOSOPHY ABOUT WEALTH: “Being an entrepreneur is about being free.

If you have a lot of things, you become a slave to them.”

a Silicon Valley firm wanted to buy Boyko’s tiny company,, which helps non-profits raise money online. His board of directors (including his brother and accountant father) told him they’d be happy if he came home with $6 million or $7 million. He was offered $17 million. “Fm sorry,” Boyko told the Californians, picking up his files. “That’s below what we expected.” By the following March, just days before the dot-com bubble burst, the suitors upped their price to $27 million. Boyko, who split that money with other investors, was 29 years old.

Being rich for Boyko, who estimates his net worth at between $5 million and $10 million, means not being tied down by debts and monthly payments. He owns a penthouse condo worth $500,000, bought with cash, and a $ 120,000 red Porsche Carrera 4 Turbo. Being rich also means the ability to travel to far-flung destinations, which Boyko does every month. In June, he visited Norway, Sweden and Finland in a whirlwind sevenday tour. At the end of July, he’s off with his father for a three-day visit to Iceland. He’s also taken up mountain climbing and, with a group of four other young tech-heads, scaled Mount Kilimanjaro last September.

Still, it’s not wealth but success that matters most to Boyko. He’s often asked why he doesn’t buy a cottage or a second home in Florida, or indulge in some of the other traditional trappings of wealth. His answer is simple: “Being an entrepreneur is about being free. If you have a lot of things, you become a slave to them.” Much of his money is invested in a dozen start-ups, and he sits on the boards of eight. He regards the opportunity to help build new businesses as

the most precious benefit of having so much money. “Succeeding in business is like succeeding on a mountain,” he says. “You work hard for it.” He is still involved with, and is back and forth between the new owner’s New York office and home. And, at least in one way, his life hasn’t changed. He still works nonstop.

JUST AS the price of admission to the rich club has grown steeper, so it has for entering the ranks of extreme wealth. There are 2,000 Canadians with $25 million; 60 have $500 million. Only 30 reach the stratospheric heights of the billionaire, according to Canadian Business magazine’s most recent roster of the 100 wealthiest Canadians. At the top, as always, is businessman and art collector Ken Thomson, worth roughly $22 billion.

It is these ultra-rich who today live the millionaire life the CNE visitors crowded to glimpse 40 years ago. From personal bankers to personal chefs to personal tailors, this elite demands exclusivity. They have yachts and thoroughbreds and white-gloved house staff. They own city homes and summer cottages and winter chalets and penthouses in Paris, Palm Springs or Prague. They can indulge every whim. Indigo maven Heather Reisman (C.ß.’s No. 49, with hubby Gerry Schwartzs, together worth $629 million) has her own florist who creates bouquets of fresh flowers every few days for her home.

Still, most Canadians in the very top bracket resist flaunting their wealth. Discretion, even downright frugality, tends to be admired. Ken Thomson famously does his own grocery shopping—and has even admitted he’d walk a block to save a dime. According to


The rich aren’t really that different from the rest of us


Most of Canada’s millionaires were born before the advent of colour TV. The age of Canadians with at least $1 million in investable money:



Many Canadians worth more than a million bucks don’t actually make big money. How much millionaire households earn in a year:


While the rich couch potato is rare, it appears polo has fallen out of favour. How Canada’s millionaires stay in shape:



WORTH: $1 million HOME: A four-bedroom, $400,000 house in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga CARS: Four-year-old Ford Explorer (hers), 15-year-old Porsche (hubby’s) SHOPPING HABITS: Big-box stores, Wal-Mart

PHILOSOPHY ABOUT WEALTH: “Our home is our own, and there’s a certain peace that comes from that”

Blacklock of Bank of Montreal, some very wealthy Canadians employ more than one financial adviser so no single person knows where all their assets are or how much there is in all. Such discretion contrasts sharply with the popular image of American wealth— the Hollywood palaces, the hip-hop Hummer limos, the sports superstars, Donald Trump. If Canada suffers from wealth inflation, the U.S. has an epidemic. There are now 138 billionaires south of the border, and lotteries there can pay out US$300 million.

At first, LuAn Mitchell-Halter seems to be a multi-millionaire in the American vein. Daughter of a Saskatchewan schoolteacher and a former beauty queen, she married a wealthy man and then became a successful businesswoman in her own right. While she is extraordinarily wealthy now, her past includes brushes with poverty. Her first husband, Fred Mitchell, was president of his family’s firm, Intercontinental Packers Inc. In the early 1990s, a battle erupted for control of the company, leading the couple to sell everything and, for a time, live in a van with their three children. Finally, in 1997, the family settled the dispute, and Fred and LuAn took over a near-bankrupt division. Fred, who suffered from cystic fibrosis, died suddenly the following year. LuAn ran the business on her own for five years before selling it in 2003.

The term rich is relative, Mitchell-Halter stresses—and a moving target. When she was a teenager, she believed the twin sisters at her high school who got a Datsun 280Z from their parents were rich. Later, after she had entered Fred Mitchell’s world, she thought an income of $700,000 would do it. “Today, at age 43,1 have to tell you, I’m always thinking in millions,” she says. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll reach a point where I’ll think in billions.”

Mitchell-Halter is not shy about admitting that she relishes what money can buy. She lives in a sumptuous 10,000-sq.-ft. heritage house in Banff, Alta., that has a virtual-reality golf machine in the rec room. Invited by her private bankers in Beverly Hills to attend the Grammy Awards, she wore a shredded-leather Escada dress. (“Talk about feeling like a million bucks,” she thrills.) In May, she purchased an 8,000-sq.-ft. home in Palm Desert, Calif., in the same gated community as Goldie Hawn’s, as a family “retreat spot.” She bought it after seeing a story about the spectacular property in Palm Springs Life magazine.

Mitchell-Halter is equally candid about the follies that only the


For Canada’s wealthy, physical well-being comes before spiritual well-being. Canadians in general give more money to religious institutions than any other causes, but millionaires are more likely to support health centres.


Millionaire cities and provinces


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CANADA 9,005



very wealthy can afford. After waiting more than a year for delivery of a custom-made silver-baby-blue convertible Ferrari Spider (price tag: $300,000), and then waiting out the winter to drive it, she realized she didn’t like it. It wasn’t comfortable. “The seats don’t heat up and it doesn’t have dual-control heat. I got to thinking, this thing sort of sucks. I wished I had a Ford Explorer. Can you believe that?”

As much as she enjoys her wealth—“if I had to choose, I’d rather have comfort in this life than be struggling”—she also gives lots away. She established a scholarship fund in Fred Mitchell’s name, and has written million-dollar cheques for three separate charities in the past year alone. “I can, so I do,” she says.

For all her enjoyment of money, MitchellHalter is conscious of a stigma around ostentatious wealth. She tells a story of her son hiking with friends while she was out in the new Ferrari. Seeing her hot-dogging on mountain roads below them, one of her son’s friends exclaimed, “Ohmigod, is that your mother?” (She has since sold the Spider and now drives a Porsche Boxster and a BMW convertible.) One day she calls from Palm Desert at 6 a.m. and leaves this message: “I’m walking around this beautiful home, thinking it’s good to acquire this or that, but what’s important are those things you can’t buy. Without my family in this home, it would be just an empty shell.”

GABBY NOBREGA, with just a fraction of Mitchell-Halter’s wealth, would agree. Five years ago, the 37-year-old public relations consultant and her husband, Duarto, won a million-dollar lottery. Late one night, as Gabby was preparing a business presentation for the following morning, Duarto discovered their win. Rather than euphoria, her first reaction was fear. “We’re very simple people with a strong work ethic. You hear stories of how coming into a lot of money changes people. So I said, ‘Promise me this will not change us; otherwise, I don’t want it.’ ”

Of course, the money did change some things. After giving $200,000 to relatives, the couple moved from their $220,000 house into a $400,000 one in Toronto’s sub urb of Mississauga. Duarto splurged on a diamond necklace and earrings

for Gabby and a Porsche for himself. She gave her Neon to her parents and bought a Ford Explorer, which she still drives. What was left has gone into the bank for their two kids. Both have continued to work. Nobrega says she still shops at Wal-Mart.

How much money would it take for you to feel rich? Have your say at

On one point Nobrega is clear: she doesn’t consider herself rich. For her, the quintessential middle-class millionaire, the definition of rich is beside the point. Comfort and contentment come down to intangibles. A lot of people believe that if they won a million dollars, all their concerns would go away, she says. “It’s not true. You still have to work at your marriage, you still have to discipline your kids, you still have to worry about your health.” But—and it’s a big but—the money provides a measure of security. “When you have a mortgage, there’s always concern about interest rates,” she says. “We know our home is our own and there’s a certain peace that comes from that.” For many, that would be worth a million bucks—and they’d gladly take it, whether or not it comes with an entry ticket to the rich club.