Yes, You Can Make a Million

Saving for Retirement

Yes, You Can Make a Million

Whether you're an entrepreneur or you earn a salary, take a lesson (or two) from 11 people who made it.

Maybe a million bucks isn't what it used to be (there are nine million households worth seven digits in the U.S. today). But by the same token, making a million is a more-attainable goal than ever. Not there yet? Then let us inspire you with the stories of 11 men and women who started off just like you and then made it. Each of them offers advice you can use. And we'll add our own 12-point plan for launching you on your way to your first million. The rest, as they say, is up to you.

"Believe that it's going to happen"

As a young girl in Caracas, Venezuela, Lorena Garcia saw only one route to success: to follow in the footsteps of her mother and brother, both of whom were lawyers. She attended law school, and when her family moved to Miami 15 years ago, she completed a paralegal course and snagged a job offer at a local law firm.

Sponsored Content

She never took the job. Instead, her legal education indirectly led her to a career in the food business. Garcia, 37, had always loved to cook, but "cooking wasn't considered a career in Venezuela," she says. But while she was taking the paralegal course, she frequented a local bistro, got to know the chef and spent afternoons in the kitchen. Eventually, she enrolled in culinary school.

Today, Garcia owns her own restaurant in Miami's Design District. She has hosted several hit cooking shows on Hispanic TV networks, and she has built a net worth of more than $2 million through her enterprises and as a spokeswoman for Splenda and Nestle Hispanic brands. Her recipe for success: three-fourths hard work and the rest sheer determination. "You have so many opportunities to be discouraged, but you have to believe that one day it's going to happen," she says.


While in culinary school, Garcia also worked full-time at the Grand Bay Hotel. She interned at Miami's China Grill -- and suffered a major setback when she sustained third-degree facial burns after she was splattered with hot oil. Following a monthlong recovery, Garcia embarked on a six-month tour of Europe and Asia, where she volunteered in local restaurants to learn their methods and recipes.

When Garcia returned to the U.S. in 2000, she spent $5,000 to put together a cooking-show pilot. She enlisted the help of friends, who lent her a camera and edited the final product. Finding no takers, she moved on to her next goal: opening a restaurant. Garcia settled on Miami's revitalized Design District, an area 20 blocks north of downtown where there were few places to eat at the time. She took out a $75,000 bank loan and used $25,000 of her own money -- saved up in certificates of deposit and money-market funds -- and opened Food Café in 2002.

As the tiny restaurant (it had just eight tables) began to build a loyal clientele, Telemundo ordered 13 episodes of her cooking show, Vida Gourmet. Since her debut, she has done a variety of other cooking shows and judged competitions for Splenda.

In late 2005, when the lease on Food Café was up, Garcia decided to end its run. She moved just down the street and opened the much larger Elements Tierra, a Latin-Asian fusion restaurant, where she is executive chef. Her latest venture is Aqua Market, a deli where she sells her own sauces.


The icing on the cake came on a recent trip to Venezuela, where one of her TV shows was airing. Asked for her autograph, Garcia found it "exciting to actually feel what I've achieved." -- Jessica Anderson

Tip Number 1: Follow your passion. Cooking wasn't a career option in Venezuela, but former law student Lorena Garcia is a successful chef and restaurateur in the U.S.

"I was always a tinkerer"

It all started with an accident. Late one night, while experimenting with a jet pump and a nozzle for a refrigerator cooling system, Lonnie Johnson shot a stream of water clear across his bathroom. Where some people might have seen a mess to clean up, Johnson saw an opportunity. Thus was born the mother of all water guns, the Super Soaker.

At the time of his fortunate accident, Johnson was working at NASAUs Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Cal., on integrating the power system of the Galileo spacecraft. But as a kid in Mobile, Ala., he had started on a much smaller scale, taking apart his siblings' toys and building things around the house. "I was always a tinkerer," says Johnson, 57.


After leaving JPL in 1982 to return to the Air Force, Johnson built the prototype for what would become the Super Soaker in his basement workshop. He had several false starts, but "a good challenge keeps me going," he says. Although he applied for his first patent on the water-gun design in 1983, it wasn't issued until 1987. About that time, he decided to leave the Air Force and work on several private projects, "any one of which might have made it," says Johnson. But when he left the Air Force, they all fell apart. "There I was with no home, no job and a family of five to support."

He returned to JPL and began shopping his water gun to toy companies. After two frustrating years, he hit the jackpot with Larami Corp. By that time, he had already sunk close to $15,000 into the project, and his licensing check was only $5,000. But Larami's goal was to produce 100,000 water guns the following year. In 1990, despite little advertising, the gun -- first christened Drencher -- became a sellout. Renamed the Super Soaker in 1991, Johnson's invention became the number-one toy in the country.

Larami has since been sold to Hasbro, but Johnson, who lives in Atlanta, still works with the company on updating the Super Soaker. His quarterly royalties have made him a millionaire, giving him the wherewithal to start his own research-and-development company, which is currently working on energy technology. Before his invention took off, "I had days when I'd stop and think, Why is it taking so long?" says Johnson. "But I never thought about giving up." -- Jessica Anderson

Tip Number 2: Seize an opportunity. An accident led inventor Lonnie Johnson to develop the Super Soaker, a smash-hit toy.


"Viva la Grenade!"

Snowboarders ooze the slacker vibe. Their culture is based on baggy clothes, easygoing attitudes and acrobatic feats on the slopes. That's hardly an environment that you'd expect to foster millionaires. Yet brothers Danny and Matt Kass have made a bundle with their company, Grenade Gloves, which designs and sells gear for snowboarders and their fans.

A family move in 1997 from Jacksonville, Fla., to Vernon, N.J., got the Kasses into snowboarding because "there was no place to skateboard in the winter," says Matt. The Kass brothers are gifted athletes. Danny, 24, won silver medals in the halfpipe event in the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics. Matt, 28, was a professional snowboarder for four years. He taught his brother the sport and invented one of Danny's signature moves.

Sponsors began flocking to Danny and Matt, but the brothers weren't content to be pitchmen. "We wanted to get hands-on," says Danny, so they learned the behind-the-scenes business. That convinced them they could produce gloves, coats and goggles with more appeal than gear from other outfitters "who had lost touch with the consumer."

At the 2002 Winter Olympics, they stenciled their company's logo all over the Olympic village. They didn't even have a pair of gloves to sell, but the buzz created demand for their gear, which has irreverent military themes, such as Dishonorable Discharge mittens and Shrapnel gloves. "As kids we had an infatuation with G.I. Joe," says Danny.

But their business is no joke. Grenade Gloves generated $5.5 million in sales in 2006, and the brothers have turned down buyout offers from Oakley and Quiksilver, two of the biggest names in sports apparel, because they want to produce gear on their own terms. As Danny puts it, "Viva la Grenade!" -- Thomas M. Anderson

Tip Number 3: Exploit your talents. Snowboarding brothers Danny and Matt Kass think their skills on the slopes give their outdoor-gear business an edge over bigger competitors.

"A theme park in a mall"

Maxine Clark rode to riches on the back of a teddy bear. Clark opened her first Build-A-Bear Workshop in a St. Louis shopping mall in 1997. Now the international chain generates $360 million in sales annually and has made Clark a multimillionaire.

In Clark's stores, kids of all ages line up to create stuffed animals in what look like factories run by Dr. Seuss on casual Fridays. Guided by a peppy staff clad in denim and khakis, customers produce personalized teddy bears and other creatures. "We really are a theme park in a mall," says Clark, 57, who lives in St. Louis.

Would-be designers spend an average of 45 minutes crafting their custom-made creations. They pick a pelt, size the stuffing, choose clothes, accessories and even furniture, name the beast and leave with a one-of-a-kind toy. For $85, you could construct a stuffed panda that sings "I love you" in Spanish, wears an official Oakland AUs uniform, carries a fake camera cell phone and resides in a display case that looks like an armoire.

Clark's playful idea was backed up with 25 years of toil in the retail business. Clark joined May Department Stores as an executive trainee in women's sportswear in 1972, shortly after graduating from the University of Georgia. She climbed her way up the corporate ladder and ran Payless ShoeSource for more than three years before starting her own company.

Clark advises aspiring entrepreneurs to gain experience in a field that stokes their passion. "If you want to own a restaurant, go work in one," she says. At May, she helped develop the company's logistics system, a project that taught her how to manage a large chain of stores. "It would have taken me a lot longer to learn how to do that on my own," she says, "and Build-A-Bear would be at 50 stores today instead of 300.S -- Thomas M. Anderson

Tip Number 4: Learn the ropes. "You have to know how to be a good employee before you can be a good boss," says Maxine Clark, chief executive officer of Build-A-Bear.

"We ate canned beans"

Dwight Ford's nickname is "The Miser," and he's proud of it. Thanks to some savvy real estate investments, frugal spending habits and sheer luck, Ford and his wife, Marciana Wilkerson, have amassed a net worth of more than $2 million and are headed for an exotic retirement in Panama.

Back in 1989, it was a stretch for the couple to buy a luxury home in Potomac, Md. But the gamble paid off. "We always thought of the house as our primary retirement vehicle," says Ford, 52. "We ate canned beans for months to pay the mortgage."

In early 2006, just before the local housing market started to soften, they sold their seven-bedroom, 7.5-bathroom home in a golf-course community for $2.35 million. After paying off their first and second mortgages, Ford and Wilkerson, 55, had about $1.3 million left to invest, just as the stock market was picking up steam en route to record highs. In addition, they have $1 million in retirement-plan assets.

Throughout their marriage -- the second for each of them -- Ford and Wilkerson have channeled the bulk of their substantial salaries into saving rather than spending. Ford, who works full-time for a technology company and runs a consulting business on the side, maxes out his contributions to both his employer's 401(k) and the SEP IRA he maintains for his own business. Wilkerson, an obstetrician, does the same. Ford is proud to carry only two pieces of plastic in his wallet: a debit card and an American Express card that he pays in full each month.

Since selling their house, Ford and Wilkerson have been renting a nearby apartment while they wait for their new condo to be built in Panama City. Wilkerson, who was born in Panama and is fluent in both English and Spanish, may continue to practice medicine part-time. Ford expects to continue consulting with clients back in the States or in Panama City, a major banking center. They both look forward to an active retirement in a year-round tropical climate.

In 2005, the couple bought side-by-side penthouse condominiums in Panama City for $440,000 apiece, putting 10% down. Each of the condos is now worth almost $700,000. The couple plan to live in one unit and sell the other, using the cash to pay off their loans. Says Ford: "We'll have no mortgage, and I get to choose who my neighbors are." -- Mary Beth Franklin

Tip Number 5: Have a plan. Dwight Ford and Marciana Wilkerson considered their million-dollar house their "primary retirement vehicle."

"I did every wrong thing"

To become a success in high-tech Silicon Valley, Alan Aerts used low-tech skills and hard work. He slung crates of produce for a grocery store and sold bread to restaurants while launching a vending-machine business that sells soft drinks and snack foods to workaholic computer engineers.

In 1980, on his route as a bread salesman for a bakery, Aerts ran into the owner of a Pac-Man game console who was servicing his equipment at a restaurant in Oakland, Cal. Aerts, who always wore a shirt and tie on sales calls, was impressed by the other fellow's jeans and T-shirt and resolved to branch out on his own.

But capitalism requires capital, and Aerts had little money to spare. Living paycheck to paycheck with his wife and newborn son, he worked days at the bakery and nights at a grocery store to pay the mortgage. During RdowntimeS between jobs, he developed his business strategy. "I'm sure I did every wrong thing you can possibly do," says Aerts. "But I knew that with enough hard work, it would all make sense."

To get his business off the ground, he relied on a second mortgage and credit cards, sometimes paying rates as high as 19%, to buy video-game and vending machines. After purchasing several machines at retail price, he realized he could buy them directly from the manufacturers for less. And he learned that vending machines were more profitable than video games, which needed to be replaced frequently to keep up with the fickle tastes of gamers.

Aerts used the contacts he made through his bakery job to prospect for new business. To hedge his bets, he put in ten years at the grocery store to earn a modest pension.

Today, Aerts's company, Custom Vending Systems, is the largest privately owned vendor in the region. Aerts, 50, lives with his wife, Bonnie, in bucolic Monte Sereno. He says business is booming as the Valley's economy blossoms after its 2000 bust. In 2005, Aerts and his wife donated $2.5 million to fund scholarships at the local community college. He's still busy 24/7, but now he dedicates evenings and weekends to charity work and local politics instead of a second job. -- Thomas M. Anderson

Tip Number 6: Put in the time. Alan Aerts worked two jobs while getting his vending-machine business off the ground.

"Just save $1 at a time"

Francis Rasmus spent more than 40 years working in insurance claims. He never earned more than $45,000 per year, yet he amassed investments worth nearly $2 million. Now he's having the time of his life giving much of it away.

What's his secret? "Saving carefully and investing wisely over decades," says Rasmus, 64, who lives in Philadelphia. "Just save $1 at a time and let the stuff accumulate."

Rasmus learned that lesson from his parents and his grandmother when, as a kid, he opened his first savings account. And he remembered it when he was hired by Provident Mutual Life Insurance in 1961. "They told me, 'When you work here, you won't get a big income, but if you stay awhile you'll do okay,'" says Rasmus.

They were right. His salary was modest, but the company's resources proved invaluable. The company maintained an extensive research library for its investment managers, and all employees had access to the facility. Rasmus took full advantage of the perk; many times he was the only one there.

Rasmus began studying Value Line and Standard & PoorUs Outlook when he was in his mid twenties, and the effort paid off. For example, Rasmus bought Johnson & Johnson in the mid 1980s for a little more than $3 per share and reinvested his dividends. Recently, the stock was trading at $66 per share. Other big gainers in his portfolio: PPG Industries and PNC.

When he left the insurance company in 1989, Rasmus decided he could do better by investing his pension money on his own rather than taking a lifetime income. He continues to do part-time consulting work for insurers, but he spends most of his time giving away his money.

Since 2004, Rasmus has donated more than $370,000 to 13 charities and four endowments. He prefers to use charitable gift annuities: He makes a donation to a charity (usually in the form of appreciated stock) and in return receives a lifetime stream of income. He also enjoys tax benefits from the arrangement. After his death, the charity will retain the remainder of his gift.

Rasmus recently heard about Camp Glow, a project of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore that gives a respite to parents of adult children with developmental disabilities. "I couldn't find a dedicated endowment for this wonderful effort," says Rasmus. Three days later, he started one. -- Kimberly Lankford

Tip Number 7: Be patient. On a salary that never topped $45,000 a year, Francis Rasmus built an investment portfolio worth nearly $2 million.

"Acquirers knocked"

Caterina Fake's entrepreneurial spirit first surfaced when, as a kid, she tried to sell her crayon drawings for a nickel apiece. It may also have been in her blood; her father left his corporate insurance job at age 55 to start his own business.

Stewart Butterfield's parents had always worked as a team in a real estate business in Vancouver, British Columbia. So it wasn't surprising that Butterfield, 33, and Fake, 37, joined forces to start their own company soon after their marriage in 2002.

Both had experience in Web design, and they wanted to develop an interactive computer game. The prototype, launched in spring 2003, attracted thousands of users.

But there were still some bugs, and money was tight. The couple had already tapped their family and friends for help, and venture-capital firms weren't enthusiastic about Web-based businesses at the time.

While recovering from a bout of food poisoning, Butterfield had a sick-bed epiphany. Part of the online game let users share photos with other players, and Butterfield thought that feature could stand on its own as a Web-based product. "It was a very different idea, but cool," he says. He came up with ten pages of notes and designs for Flickr, the popular online photo-sharing site.

Butterfield and Fake both wanted to abandon the online game and concentrate on Flickr. But they could afford only one project, so they had to persuade the majority of their team to support the new one. "It was a tie," says Fake. "Stewart guilted someone into voting for Flickr."

That was on December 8, 2003. The first version of Flickr was launched by February 2004, and it was an immediate hit. "From the outset, potential acquirers knocked on the door," says Fake.

Unlike other photo-sharing sites, Flickr focused on building an online community. Fake and a colleague spent days and nights greeting people on the site and introducing them to each other. "If you build a social network that takes off, that's the Holy Grail," says Fake.

Fake and Butterfield met with several venture-capital firms and potential buyers, including Yahoo. In the middle of their presentation, the program developed a major bug. "Bad timing," says Butterfield. "They didn't call back."

But six months later, in March 2005, Yahoo bought Flickr for about $30 million. Butterfield and Fake celebrated by buying a new Prius. They moved their offices from Vancouver to San Francisco, and their entire staff of 24 moved with them. Butterfield continues to run Flickr for Yahoo, and Fake is in Yahoo's technology-development group. "In a big company, that's about as close to an entrepreneurial venture as you can get," says Fake. -- Kimberly Lankford

Tip Number 8: Take a chance. Starting a company "pushes you and gives you confidence," says Caterina Fake, who, with husband Stewart Butterfield, founded and sold Flickr, the online photo-sharing site.