Back in 2007 and 2008, rumors swirled around western Montana of a billionaire from the financial industry who had purchased a massive, storied cattle ranch near the town of Deer Lodge.
The billionaire’s name was Bill Foley, then the Chairman and CEO of Fidelity National Financial.
Some of the rumors were typical, the kind you hear about rich people with more money than sense. For instance, Foley had supposedly hired a golf pro and former manager of a hot dog cart to oversee the construction of a new complex of buildings on the ranch. (Had he been the manager of outside vendors at some California golf course? That’s what someone told me.)
Other rumors had a sharper edge. I wondered what reality might lie beneath them. One story had the construction manager first hiring and then blithely firing a bunch of Deer Lodge locals for the construction crews.
That’s not all. Later, at the Deer Lodge rodeo, some of those hired-and-fired construction workers supposedly spotted the construction manager where he sat in the stands with his wife, and then tossed pebbles at him to get him to come down to get his ass kicked!
There were other tales that skewered Foley and his pals as out-of-touch outsiders or truly sharks with hearts of stone, but curiously I sometimes heard a competing storyline, one that surfaces from time to time about characters like this. This is it… that Foley was “down-to-earth” and a “regular” guy.
I enjoy a thorough, well-reported profile as much as the next guy, and Foley seemed to present an interesting case study, so I geared up to write about him. I wanted to find out as much as I could. I studied Foley’s businesses. I talked to business analysts. I called his old friends and acquaintances. I interviewed Foley by phone and in person, and I called a number of people who he directed me to. I did my best to be fair, and to sort through the bullshit to find the truth.
In the end, my research revealed a portrait of a man who managed to consolidate an industry and make a massive fortune for himself on the strength of his trend-spotting abilities and his unscrupulous heart. The thing that really struck me about him was the way he talked about firing thousands of hard-working employees. It was necessary, he said, to strengthen the company, which paid him hundreds of millions for his cut-throat business sense.
Still, I don’t believe Foley gave a damn for wrecking the livelihoods of the people who actually did the work at Fidelity National Financial!
Is that wrong? Who am I do say? But I can tell you that I would never be able to behave like he did. Or if I did, I’d probably struggle, as he appears to, to present myself as a “down-to-earth” “regular” guy.
Also, I thought it odd that he apparently missed the deep irony behind his business actions: His company made fortunes on housing transactions but in the process wrecked the ability of tens of thousands of employees to be home-owners. How will companies like Fidelity prosper if fewer and fewer people can buy homes?
Plus, Foley’s a tool. He actually tried to buy me off by offering me the carrot of a fat contract writing his authorized biography.
With that introduction, I think you’ll probably enjoy the heck out of this piece.
The excellent photography was by Anne Medley.
P.S. Is Bill Foley really a billionaire? Actually… probably not. At least, not according to Forbes and others who track the net worth of rich individuals.