It’s typical for large business enterprises to be financed in large part by people who didn’t found the company and don’t necessarily manage it. Consequently, while one way to make a lot of money founding and managing a company is for the company to be very successful, and thus for your share of it to be very valuable, that actually isn’t the only way.
Another thing you can do is run a business that stays afloat for a number of years without really being profitable. Then you pay yourself a high salary, and when it eventually goes bankrupt that’s the investors’ problem.
Russ Buettner and Charles V. Bagli have a fantastic, in-depth, 5,000-word account of Donald Trump’s business dealings in Atlantic City for the New York Times that is full of lurid details that amount to this core point: Trump’s New Jersey casinos were never successful operating businesses, but they did make a lot of money for Donald Trump personally, because he tunneled assets out of the enterprises into his own pockets.
While the sheer range of businesses Trump has been involved with over the years — real estate development, casinos, suits, reality television, steak, water, a "university," books, presidential politics — may offer the superficial appearance of a broad range of mastery, the story of Trump’s adventures in Atlantic City reveal something else.
Across these ventures, Trump has mastered essentially a single skill — structuring deals to be financially beneficial to him personally regardless of whether the underlying business is successful. Rather than creating wealth for his business partners, Trump took advantage of investors who believed in him in order to benefit himself personally — just as he did years later with the "students" at Trump University.
Trump on Atlantic City: "I made a lot of money"
On the surface, Trump’s close association with Atlantic City, where several casinos once boasted his name but which has now become something of an economic disaster zone (see Nick Paumgarten’s "The Death and Life of Atlantic City" for an excellent account that has nothing to do with Trump), is a bad look.
But Trump has a standard line of defense on this point.
"I made a lot of money in Atlantic City," he said in a Republican debate late last year. "And I'm very proud of it."
Trump further notes that he personally got out of the Atlantic City casino business before it collapsed entirely, and that the collapse of Atlantic City casinos has much more to do with the spread of legal gambling to other East Coast locations than with anything particular to the Atlantic City properties.
This appears to be true. But the upshot of Bagli and Buettner’s reporting is that Trump made money despite the fact that his "casino business was a protracted failure" in which he "put up little of his own money, shifted personal debts to the casinos and collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments."
How Trump made money
Trump made money in Atlantic City through two primary means. One was extracting management fees from companies he was involved with, and the other was transferring personal debts to companies he controlled:
- The pattern started with his very first Atlantic City venture, a partnership with Harrah’s for which he was paid a $24 million construction management fee.
- Over the years, the Times reports, Trump "collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments."
- In 1993, Trump Plaza casino sold more than $100 million in junk bonds and "more than half of the new money went to pay off Mr. Trump’s unrelated personal loans."
- In 1995, the company staged an IPO, and then a week later "the new company began using some of the almost $300 million it had raised to clear Mr. Trump’s personal debts."
- Trump’s casinos paid $300,000 a year for the right to use Trump’s jet to transport celebrities to gigs.
- Trump appears to have bilked the shareholders of Trump Casinos and Resorts out of the opportunity to share in a $1 million profit related to the sale of shares in Riviera Hotel and Casino, keeping the money for himself instead.
What Trump did not do was run successful casinos:
- "Revenues at other Atlantic City casinos rose 18 percent from 1997 through 2002; Mr. Trump’s fell by 1 percent."
- "Had Mr. Trump’s revenues grown at the rate of other Atlantic City casinos, his company could have made its interest payments and possibly registered a profit."
The public company never turned a profit, leaving behind a trail of losses for shareholders and bondholders, and unpaid bills to contractors and subcontractors.
Trump benefited from a lot of lax regulation
To an extent, the fact that Trump was an unscrupulous businessman who talked people into lending him money to run casinos even though he was bad at running casinos is nobody’s problem but the lenders. But casino gambling isn’t a normal industry, and New Jersey allowed it in Atlantic City as part of a larger scheme of economic development that aimed to create a stable base of jobs for the resort town.
In principle, that meant licensed casino operations were not supposed to be operating with the kind of excessive debt levels that Trump used to keep the gravy train running.
New Jersey regulators have extensive discretion, however, and they mostly seemed to use that discretion to let Trump do what he wanted. Indeed, as David Cay Johnston has reported for Politico, these same regulators seemed largely uninterested in exploring Trump’s varied business relationships with Mafia front companies, so it's perhaps not so surprising that they let this slide too.
Trump exploits people who are impressed by his name
Ultimately, the story of Trump in Atlantic City looks a lot like a large-scale version of the story of Trump University.
In both cases, rather than offering actual education or hospitality management, what Trump offered was a name vaguely associated in the public eye with money and opulence. The casinos were not, in fact, well-run, and the "education" offered was entirely useless. But Trump managed to construct business models for himself where personal enrichment did not depend on the underlying soundness of the enterprise. As long as the music was playing and cash was flowing in and out the door, Trump managed to grab some.
Eventually, it came to an end. So after casinos came the university, the steaks, the water, the television show, the suits, and now a presidential campaign.