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From a Trailer in Wisconsin to a Billionaire Real Estate Mogul : Interview with Kenneth Behring

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

The very first interview is dedicated to Mr. Kenneth E. Behring, a billionaire real estate developer, philanthropist, and the former owner of the Seattle Seahawks. He passed away on June 25, 2019. However, he left a legacy of donating more than a million wheelchairs through the Wheelchair Foundation, and helping hundreds of thousands of children discover their passion for science and history through the Behring Global Education Foundation. This is a small testament to how he has changed and inspired the world. One of those people inspired by his foundation, and his story was me. Here's a conversation I had recorded with him in 2017 at his office, talking about his journey.




Christopher Rathbun:

Thank you so much Mr. Behring for being here. So what is your story?


Mr. Kenneth Behring:

Well, I did not ever have a lot of money so I worked in the automobile business the hard way, working from nine in the morning till eleven at night, seven days a week. At that time, you had to be there and you had to try to sell to anybody that came in looking for that type of used cars, that we thought people will like.


Christopher Rathbun:

How did you first get into selling automobiles?


Mr. Kenneth Behring:

Well out of high school, I work for a couple of dealers and became a car salesman. I liked automobiles when I was young I’d always liked them and I enjoyed selling them And we were in a farming community so we sold more trucks than cars. The Chevrolet dealer that I had worked for had a young son and son in law that inherited the dealership. And they finally said “you're making more than we do”, but they weren't working. So they changed my commission. So I said goodbye and went to another dealership for a couple months and then I went on my own on a used car lot. I had to build the lot, which wasn't much but it put me in businesses for the first time, on my own, in the car business. And I went back to the first dealer and bought all the bad cars that had been traded in. So in the beginning, I became a dealer of more or less junk cars and we were selling to people that had no credit and couldn't buy at any other place. So every week or two weeks, they would come back in and trade for another car that wasn't really any good either. At least it gave them transportation and they'd fix them up so they can drive them for a few weeks, maybe a month and then trade for another one. But they had no money. So we made the money as went on by selling better cars.


Christopher Rathbun:

How could you finance all this?


Mr. Kenneth Behring:

The financing I charged was 18% compound. And I had a bank that would loan me the money against what I loan. So I was really borrowing 100% of the money. At that time I was probably paying 7% or 8% and charging 18% compound, so financing made me more money than our business because nobody else would do it. They couldn't go to the bank… they couldn't go to any place because their credit was terrible. But every week they had a little money.


Christopher Rathbun:

And you were still doing this all of high school. So how was your university years?


Mr. Kenneth Behring:

Well I only went to university for one semester and I was going the hard way. We bought a little homemade house trailer for $15. We parked it behind a filling station and paid them $2 or $3 a month to use their bathroom and get water. The trailer was so bad. There was cold in Wisconsin and it snowed. There were two windows on both sides and We weren't smart enough to nail it shut so in the morning when we would wake up we would be covered with snow. We had a little burner that would only last for three hours. So you would wake up in the morning when it was minus 20 degrees or below and you would shovel snow out. It wasn't an enjoyable way to go to the university. It wasn’t like having a father say there's some money to the daughter, here is a nice dormitory and have fun, party. We headed home Thursday night since we didn't have any class on Friday, or Saturday. We did homework during the week, and would go home to work Friday and Saturday to get enough money and buy the food for the next week.


We both joined Naval Reserve, so at least we had cloth because we have the naval outfit. And I enjoyed it. We had our Marine Colonel that was the head of it. and he arrange where I could go to Annapolis and probably could get approved if I passed the health-check and everything else. So I decided I'd become a naval officer. But halfway there, I decided I cannot take orders. So I turned around and came back. So that was the extent on my military service.


Christopher Rathbun:

Do you have any advice for students that are going to university or just leaving University?


Mr. Kenneth Behring:

Going the way we did was not an enjoyable way. It was difficult, and we had nobody giving us advice. I only had one semester. My first semester I took city planning and the professor arrived and said I’ve never seen you around campus right?. I said I just came here and this is my first semester. And he said well this is a senior class. And he said “okay, you can remain” Eventually I built my own city. I don't know if I got anything from that course or not. But it's interesting. I took the senior class in city planning and I eventually founded my own city.


Christopher Rathbun:

Talking about city planning, the next stage of your career was focused on building out real estate. How did you make this transition?


Mr. Kenneth Behring:

Well, I had a friendly banker in Monroe who eventually worked for me. He was the head of a bank in Monroe where I grew up, and he liked me. So he was loaning me money and he came and said, you know, I can get you FHA loans for some apartments. Why don't you build them, because I think you can make a lot of money for the amount of the loan. So I did, I found a builder that can build them, and I built, not that many, but four duplexes and I built my own house in a short period of time. And I enjoyed it, especially that I didn't have to do all the work. During this time, we would go to Florida for a week or 10 days in the winter and I really liked it so I decided why not go down and live. I was tired of 20 below and two feet of snow. So I packed up, hopped in the back of a car, and went to Florida. And then down there I met a banker again and partnered. So we bought a good land, and I built a very nice house. And I had a good builder next to me; they helped me with all the subs.


So I did a lot of it by myself. I wanted to find out how you build a house before it was finished. A manager of a company came and purchased the house for more profit than I could ever get in automobiles. So why not build more. So I bought a few lots and started to build on those and I was able to finance them off. So I sold. Then I got another small sections of land which I'd found some people that I had already sold to who loaned me the money and went in as a partnership with me. They would put theirs sons out selling the property and provide me with the money and I was the builder. So that's really how I got started.


During that, I met a lot of different people. Then I built the first high rise, and I found a builder that could build it. It was the first one and my attorney was very innovative. So at that time everything was cooperative. So he said let's see if we can't come up where we can sell the units. It happened there was a senator running for Florida Senate that needed some money. So he said, if you will give me this donation, I'll give you whatever you want when I get in. So when that happened, when he made it, he became a very good senator. But he also came through and through him I got the city charter, which was very innovative. We only had 15 acres and no people in our garden at the same time, We got it the same year that Disney go their land in Florida. So what we wanted was to zone small lots and sell to retired people. And that time, zoning wise you had to have a big rod so you can get the price down. So through our city, we could get the price down or the lot size down so we can sell or we're selling for 9,000 up to 12,000 dollars for a finished house. We had a program where landscaping was done and we helped paint outside the house. I got the apartments hooked on to water and so we regularly provide water and sewer and we set up a company to do all this. There were 250 homes with a center where they could enjoy life such as shuffleboard and dancing.


I leased out to the people and they had to pay so much for a month. I was getting $10 a month from every house that I had nothing in it. And we collected that for 15 years and was still collecting it when I moved out to California. And that was tax free money because I sold it to the city which I own. So it was a city bond. So there was no tax on me on the money coming in. It was a very innovative way of making tax free money. When I started in building those, tax rate was up to about 90%. It later dropped to 75% 60% and then 50%. But taxes were very high. Then I bought about 1000 acres west of Fort Lauderdale, and I paid $1,000 an acre for that land for 30 or 40 year term. So land that was worth a couple million dollars an acre that I bought for $1,000 an acre and I later got rid of it. I went public with my building company. I was tired and I wanted something different. So that's when I moved here to California. We also built 25 golf courses down there and you get tired after a while working seven days a week, 10 - 12 hours a day.


Christopher Rathbun:

Did you have any regrets during this process?


Mr. Kenneth Behring:

Well, the problem was I was too old. I missed all the high tech, and I never did learn it. You know for a number of years I was rated one of the wealthiest on Forbes 400. And once high tech came it changed overnight, because they would just have an idea and then make the money. We did the hard way of building homes, apartments in Florida. I was building 3000 houses a year as the largest builder in the country for single families. Other things we perfected was we came up with the name condeominium, and the first one I built was on the road park in Fort Lauderdale it was the beginning of condominiums which now spread all over the world. We got the name through the legislature, and we got an act of the legislature to sell air-right, which had never been sold before. That was an interesting time in my life and I kept the top floor for parties every weekend. People that came down was there was a crowd out of Palm Beach and we had some great parties. This was a place for them to come to get away from Palm Beach where the newspapers would have picked everything.




Christopher Rathbun:

And I'm really curious what is your decision making process? I know in the next stage of your life, you own the Seattle Seahawks. How do you even go about making the decision of buying a NFL football team?


Mr. Kenneth Behring:

Well, you'd have to think of what's good, and you have to make an instant decision. The way I brought the football team, I knew the Nordstrom family, I had a home in Palm Springs and the older son had a home there. And I played golf with him and he said, I'm having a party why don’t you just come up. So I had nothing to do so I did come. It was a nice party and after I was getting back to my airplane, when the son said you know we own the football team, would you mind if you’ve got a lot of time I'd like to stop since it was pre season and I haven't watched them. So we stopped and then he started introducing me to the coaches and such. Then he took me up to the airplane and we're going up the steps when he said, you know, my family is really getting bad publicity from football, especially if they we don't win. And they've decided if they can get a decent offer, they would sell. I said how much. They came up with something and I said what is the lowest possible price that they would take? And he said, wow, you know, I'm a part of it. My brothers, my sister and her husband are all invested in it, you know. I think if we didn't have to pay commission, I think they might take 80 million.

I stated well, I'll give you 75 million and buy it now. He said no, I know my family. I said how about 77. He decided “I’ll tell you what, I’ll gives 79 and I take the million off of my share. So I said okay, we shook hands and the next morning, headlines and the paper, announced that I bought the time. They had a big affair at the football field where all the people came. I didn't close the deal for four months, but we shook hands and that was it. So you have to deal with people that you can trust and rather know their word means something. Whenever you do something, if you don't live up to your word, you will never be strong. Even if you made a mistake, if you say something you have to live with it


Christopher Rathbun:

And years later, what was interaction like when you saw the Seattle Seahawks to Paul Allen at Microsoft?


Mr. Kenneth Behring:

Microsoft was very questionable. I tried to sell the team but there was no buyers. and I moved the team then to LA because LA had a big stadium. But there was such an uproar in Seattle. They went crazy. So they found or talked Paul Allen into buying it. He said well how about getting part of the money in the stock from Microsoft. And I said I don’t know that much about it and I don't have that much faith that Microsoft is going to be that great. So I said nah, I just cash. Microsoft stock has went up 100 times since then.


Christopher Rathbun:

So every decade you seem to change your interest, what makes you change these interests?


Mr. Kenneth Behring:

I had no money. So if I wanted to go into something else I had to sell all I had. It wasn’t like I could keep all I had and go into something else because I never had that much capital. So you learned to do that. And you know, I tire of things.


Christopher Rathbun:

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Mr. Behring. At the end any last words you want to leave the audience with?


Mr. Kenneth Behring:

You have to take that chance; you have to be honest; your word has to be absolute. The harder you work the luckier you get and that's something that's always going to be here. I don't care who it is, where it is, the harder you work, the luckier you get.


Christopher Rathbun:

Thank you so much for joining us on the Global innovators podcast. A special thanks to Dyan Han at the Bering Global Education Foundation for making this conversation and podcast possible. For more information and content, find us at www.innovator.media





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