Ed Ewing: Capital IdeasAugust 12, 2017
Story by Jason Recker
Photos by Brittney Lohmiller
From a sitting room in a home purchased for nearly $4 million — pool out back, tree-lined street out front — Ed Ewing acknowledges there are people worth more money than he.
That pisses him off.
It’s not that he’s losing. He’s worth many millions. But he’s trailing with little chance he’ll surpass the most famous of the world’s rich — Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates — and he is a business tycoon driven by metrics. Ewing always keeps score.
Go back to the 1950s when he and his brother sparred in the only board game that’s ever enamored Ewing. In rounds of Monopoly, Ewing’s brother waited for Park Place and Boardwalk while Ed snapped up whatever property the thimble landed upon.
“I owned the whole damn board and when he shook the dice, he just paid my a--,” Ewing cackles.
Ed borrowed play money, booby-trapped the cheap properties with hotels and turned his palm to the sky. Pay up, bro. Often, his brother fired the dice across the board in protest. Eventually, the games ceased because what fun is it to be on the down side of capitalism? Ewing has rarely — never, perhaps — been made the fool.
The man, as the story goes, graduated from Jasper High School in 1962 with $20 and a Greyhound bus ticket with an itch to make money. He’s also brazen, not afraid to take risks foreign to those of us who aren’t thinking about how to push our net worth to $1,000,000,000. Nine zeroes. One billion dollars. Ewing isn’t worth quite that much, but he can see it from one of his half-dozen or so properties stretched across the United States.
Ewing is and has been for years an owner and CEO deluxe who introduces himself as a native of Jasper, Indiana, with a high school diploma. There’s a pride that comes with rising from the bottom and Ewing lets it be known that he — not luck, not nepotism, not handouts — is the one responsible for his rising.
He grew up here near downtown in a home that lacked running water. He’s 72 years old now and living, for the most part, in suburban Nashville in a home reportedly purchased for $3.9 million.
He’s mostly retired, but not really.
Retired would imply he’s not keeping score. His numbers: There are 7.5 billion people on Earth and in 2017, a total of 5,100 of them are worth more than $300 million and 2,397 qualify as billionaires. He’s among those worth more than $300 million. The man who started his post-high school career with one zero to his credit has been adding them ever since.
“It’s about net worth accumulation in the game of capitalism and free enterprise and I’m playing with the brightest minds in the world,” Ewing says. “Right now, some people are kicking my a--, but I’m not giving up.”
The assault is relative.
Locally, Ewing’s assets and name are most closely linked to Ewing Properties, the network of apartments and duplexes with headquarters in Jasper and units in Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio and Texas. But the man is active on a global scale.
The quick and dirty version:
Owns homes in the Nashville suburb of Belle Meade as well as Tucson, Arizona, and Aspen, Colorado, and a yacht in West Palm Beach, Florida, and property in Dallas, Texas, too. The sprawling Big Tree Farm along State Road 162 lined by fences north of Santa Claus is his. He once built a home in Rancho Sante Fe, California, called Casa del Sol that was at one time listed for $36.5 million (go ahead, Google it). He spent time in Greece this summer, has an affinity for Beverly Hills and Manhattan and at one point owned a collection of more than 100 classic cars.
Before all that, a former Jasper High School teacher named Wes Settle got Ewing a job as a draftsman at Kimball International. After that, he tried the U.S. Air Force. Never went to college. Shook things up at International Harvester in Fort Wayne, where he used that experience as a draftsman, realized he “hated the heck out of second place” and discovered promotions aren’t linked to a degree. He followed a hunch that aerospace would blossom and darted for General Dynamics in Texas, told them point-blank they needed to hire him (he finally succeeded on the seventh bid for an interview) and oversaw the company’s production of military tanks and F-16 fighter jets. He moved to rejuvenate decaying shipyards in California. Worked as chairman and CEO of Key Automotive Group, a Michigan-based auto parts manufacturer, and was deep into Carlyle Group, a private equity services corporation where he served as managing director and was again involved in aerospace.
His résumé includes The Carlyle Group, Key Plastics, The Aerostructures Corp., BAE Systems Ship Repair, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Key Safety Systems, and Ewing Management Group.
At one point, the companies under his watch were generating more than $500 million of revenue on three continents. Aerospace. Automotive. Real estate. Private equity. Shipping. Even flowers in China. The markets were many.
In 2008, he exited a portion of his dealings.
“I predicted the banks would fail,” he says. “I predicted I’d lose equity. I got out way before everybody else lost their a--.”
Even before the Monopoly domination, the guy had a knack for commerce.
The son of Bernie and Wanda Ewing — he was named after his father but hates the name Bernie and thus goes by B. Edward or Ed — walked the streets of Jasper selling tomatoes. He never set a price, instead batting his eyes when the women at the door asked how much.
“Whatever you’d like to give me, ma’am,” he said with puppy dog eyes.
Irresistibility and innocence — and the notion that it’s better not to apply a ceiling to anything — generated a bigger profit.
“So I turned 50 cents into $1 or $2,” he recalls. “God sends you down the line and some people get more parts than others. Some get parts but don’t use them. Then you get the chip that causes you to optimize. I wanted to own a place to live, to have my mom and dad have a place to live. I never worried about being poor because I knew I wasn’t going to be.”
He’s loved Scrooge McDuck, the cartoon character who famously swims in his mounds of gold coins.
With hair carefully placed in a slicked-back wave, a deep voice and a wife some 20 years his junior, he is pure polish. There’s no doubt there’s some bravado to his stories about how he challenged elders and embraced the common man working for the companies he ran. There are stories about the power of Ewing’s company meetings, with objects thrown across the room and a worker once so moved by the intensity that he vomited after Ewing spoke.
You get the feeling that even if that story is only a legend that Ewing will let it fly. It’s one of his principles: Don’t tell people how great you are but rather get people to do that for you.
He says he worked 70, 80, 90 hours a week and stayed all night to talk to the second shift, third shift. There was no bathroom or break room he wouldn’t use. He shook hands. He asked what he could do to help Joe Blow.
Business is about people, and Ewing knows a pain that money cannot mask.
Ewing’s daughter Erin died in 2000 just a day after she turned 20. She suffered from leukemia years earlier but the cancer had ducked into remission when she died suddenly while at college.
“You talk about difficult ...” says Ewing, who became deeply involved with cancer-related charities. “You never get over it.”
Aware of the impact of feelings, he does not use email and isn’t a fan of text messages. Tone cannot be translated. Body language cannot be interpreted. Communication is best done directly, and he’s eager to give an example why.
He rises from his chair in the sitting room and sets in motion a fake dispute among two employees.
Johnny has a problem with Nancy and Nancy isn’t dealing well with Johnny. Friction, hostility, loss of productivity. He stands between the employees and asks each two things: Where did you go to college (Johnny says UCLA, and Nancy says Northwestern) and how much money do you make? (both say $500,000 per year)
Then, unfiltered as always, he punctuates.
“You two think I can’t find somebody who went to UCLA and somebody who went to Northwestern and pay them $500,000 each to solve this problem you two can’t work out?” he asks, his stare swaying from one to the other and back again.
“Everybody thinks it’s their job to identify the problem,” he says, now back outside his hypothetical scenario. “Somebody has to find answers.”
It’s the pragmatic thinking that propels Ewing still.
Ewing Properties was borne of Ewing’s idea that people in towns of 15,000 to 50,000 want someplace nice to live but are limited by the supply. His duplex communities and upscale rentals target younger folks and those 55 and older. His goal was to have $1 million invested in real estate by the time he was 65, but he’s since upped that amount to $10 million then $100 million.
Ewing Properties remains based in Jasper — it’s run by Ed’s oldest son, 47-year-old Chris — though Ed returns to his home state only sporadically these days and checks every few months to make sure the bank account is properly filled. “At 47 years old, (Chris) should know what to do,” Ed quips. “You wouldn’t have had to tell me.”
Ed and another son, 41-year-old Tony, are developing apartments in downtown Nashville, where Ed and his wife of 19 years, Linda, are raising their 15-year-old daughter, Alaina. Tony lives in Nashville, and Ed’s youngest son Tanner, 27, is in Dallas.
All of the sons work directly or indirectly with their father in real estate.
Ed retains some of his simple roots. For instance, if he were to be served one final meal, he’d eat a bologna sandwich with mayo, a bowl of bean soup, Ruffles with Prairie Farms French onion dip and Diet Pepsi. He flew a few local pals to his Florida yacht this summer to catch up after one member of the group unexpectedly died. He notes with pride that eight generations of his family are buried in Shiloh Cemetery west of Jasper (including both of his parents as well as Erin) and his grandson Ryan is the running back for Jasper High School’s football team. He’s comfortable in a dirty pair of jeans and a baseball cap.
But he lives in zero debt. The future of his children — and that of his seven grandchildren (four are in Jasper) — knows no financial bounds.
Alaina attends the prestigious Ensworth School in Nashville (tuition at the high school level is north of $26,000 per year) and “can get whatever she wants,” Ed admits before noting that she asks for very little.
“With Tony, they’d close the Ralph Lauren store in New York when we pulled up,” Ed says.
He recognizes that financial security brings with it two major benefits: When he speaks, people listen, and he can be a catalyst of change.
With Alaina, he questions a paradox of affluence: Too much money is bad. He wonders out loud if he’s setting his teenager up for success by paving a clear path to wealth.
“How many sandwiches can you eat? How many watches can you wear? How many cars can you drive?” he asks. “You do a lot of dumb things. I had a huge car collection and nobody who knows me has ever seen me drive one of those cars. I bought things because I liked them. When you can buy anything, you don’t want it. There’s nothing to dream for.
“But I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich and if you have to choose, rich is better.”
Remember that money is a metric and Ed Ewing is mindful of every dollar.
“I have those German roots. I know to be frugal and save and invest,” he says. “I’m still keeping score.”
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