In March of 2009, Bernie Madoff pleaded guilty to fraud and was given a 150-year prison sentence for running the largest Ponzi scheme in history. He died today of chronic liver failure.
The story around his scam is shocking, not just in its scope (he stole $17 billion of customer money) but in its purpose. Because there is one fact that is, at least to me, is more remarkable than the rest: Bernie Madoff was a mega-millionaire before he started stealing.
Here is a quote from an interview he did in jail:
“We made a very nice living,” he said. “I didn’t need the investment-advisory business. I took it on and got myself involved in it, but if you think I woke up one morning and said, ‘Well, listen, I need to be able to buy a boat and a plane, and this is what I’m going to do,’ that’s wrong. I had more than enough money to support my lifestyle and my family’s lifestyle. I allowed myself to be talked into something, and that’s my fault. I thought I could extricate myself after a short period of time. But I just couldn’t.”
Madoff had used the Wall Street machine—legally—to be making over $100 million a year in the late 1980’s. So why did he concoct and execute one of the largest scams in human history?
Because it made him feel worthy.
Madoff had used hard work, technology, and a desire to break an oppressive Wall Street system to democratize investing, shrink trading margins, and dismantle the systems that kept investing an exclusive club for decades. He had started a tiny investing company with just $500 that allowed everyday people access to “odd lot” opportunities—smaller groups of stocks and bonds that required less money to purchase. He was among the first to use computers to display prices and execute trades—a system that eventually became the Nasdaq Stock Market. He was Nasdaq chairman in 1990, 1991, and 1993.
But the allure of being sought after by the world’s biggest investors was irresistable:
“The chairman of Banco Santander came down to see me, the chairman of Credit Suisse came down, chairman of UBS came down; I had all of these major banks. You know, Safra coming down and entertaining me and trying [to invest with me]. It is a head trip. [Those people] sitting there, telling you, ‘You can do this.’ It feeds your ego. All of a sudden, these banks which wouldn’t give you the time of day, they’re willing to give you a billion dollars,” he explained. “It wasn’t like I needed the money. It was just that I thought it was a temporary thing, and all of a sudden, everybody is throwing billions of dollars at you. Saying, ‘Listen, if you can do this stuff for us, we’ll be your clients forever.’ ”
The club that would not accept a middle-class kid from Queens was now begging him to take their money. And they did not even want to know how he was achieving his returns. Norm Levy, an ultra-wealthy real estate developer told his children on his deathbed, “Trust Bernie Madoff.” Madoff had made—legitimately—hundreds of millions of dollars for Levy before he started the scam.
The idea of being at the top of the world—both in terms of status and wealth—was too much for Madoff to refuse. It tore him and his family apart. He spoke of “living with this ax over your head,” knowing that his day of reckoning would come, and the pain of not telling his brother and sons—all of whom worked with him in different departments. His older son would take his own life on the second anniversary of Madoff’s arrest at age 46. His younger son died of cancer in 2014. His older brother—Peter—is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence. His kids would not speak to him, or their mother Ruth, after the confession. After his arrest, he never saw his sons (who turned him in to authorities) or his brother again.
All of this for the approval of some high-priced bankers and some money he did not need.
Success is defined for us in terms of dollars and status. That message is beaten into us through our education system, advertising, and culture. But it is a vicious lie.
It is time to build lives centered around positive, healthy living for ourselves and the people we love, instead of an endless chase of false success. Let’s make money less stressful and consuming by giving people the tools they require to fulfill their needs, escape debt cycles, care for their families, and enable retirement so they can focus on more important things today. And let’s give them the comfort of a peer navigator to guide them on a personal path of success so they feel more secure and empowered on their journey.
Employers hold the keys to making this a reality. Let’s do this. Together.