The Secret Dividend Millionaires are everyday people that built wealth through saving, investing in dividend paying stocks, and reinvesting the dividends. They tended to have ordinary jobs and lived simple lives. They let time work to their advantage and relied on the power of compounding to build wealth. Some were essentially part of the financial independence, retire early or ‘FIRE’ movement before there was one.
But what allowed these individuals to become Secret Dividend Millionaires? Were they just lucky? Some bloggers think that becoming wealthy is luck. Your odds of becoming a millionaire are about 3.6% in the U.S. Perhaps there is some luck in becoming super-wealthy. The top 1% or the super rich are not like you and me. But if take a look at these individuals none were founders of tech start ups that had an IPO. They just saved, invested, and reinvested. It was that simple for them. In fact, I would argue that many people could do this.
Let’s briefly take a look at all three of the characteristics that made the Secret Dividend Millionaires just that. After that, I will discuss the stories of individual Secret Dividend Millionaires.
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What Three Principles Did the Secret Dividend Millionaires Focus On?
Most of the Secret Dividend Millionaires followed three key principles whether they purposefully intended to or not.
- They spent less than they earned.
- They invested their savings.
- They reinvested the dividends and compounded.
The Secret Dividend Millionaires as group were frugal. In some instances, they were frugal to the point of austerity. But they were stingy with the purpose of reaching financial freedom sooner. Arguably a few might have been considered reclusive. I do not suggest that extreme an approach. But in general, they all spent much less than they earned in their annual salary and lived simply. Some of the people in this list did not have particularly high paying salaries. The list includes janitors, secretaries, insurance agents, teachers, etc. However, they saved a fairly high percentage of the amount they earned. How much did they save? Well, as a percentage of their income they were for the most part in the double-digits. This is higher than the average American. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, U.S. personal savings rates are rarely over 10% with the exception of recessions. This is very low compared to the Secret Dividend Millionaires
Next, the Secret Dividend Millionaires invested their savings in the stock market. Most were buying stocks that paid dividends. For instance, many owned stocks that eventually became Dividend Aristocrats or Dividend Kings. Some had other investments including their primary home, bonds, and cash. But for the most part, dividend paying stocks made up the bulk of their wealth. This points to actual examples of ordinary people using dividend paying and dividend growth stocks to build wealth.
The Secret Dividend Millionaires reinvested the dividends. This leverages the power of compounding. Not reinvesting dividends slows down the process of building wealth. Many of the Secret Dividend Millionaires lived long lives into their 80s and 90s and even over 100 in a few instances, which was to their advantage. It allowed their dividend stocks to compound over time to build wealth. In some sense time is more important than money in this context. A dollar invested early in life and allowed to compound is worth more than a dollar invested later in life. This points to the importance of staying invested.
Now let’s read about some of the stories of relatively famous Secret Dividend Millionaires.
Secret Dividend Millionaires
I thought I would start the series on Secret Dividend Millionaires by talking about Ronald Read since this blog is about dividend growth investing. Ronald Read was a Vermont gas station attendant, mechanic, and janitor. He died at age 92 in 2014 with an $8 million fortune. He bequeathed part of that fortune to an area library and hospital.
Reportedly, Ronald Read had invested in dividend paying stocks and held a diversified portfolio of at least 95 stocks. Ronald Read was not an active trader and followed a buy-and-hold strategy. He also lived very frugally allowing him to save. Lastly, he lived to 92 so time and the power of compounding was on his side. So, he eventually became a Secret Dividend Millionaire.
Ronald Read invested in stocks that he knew. His investments included Procter & Gamble (PG), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), AT&T (T), Bank of America (BAC), CVS (CVS), Deere (DE), General Electric (GE), and General Motors (GM). These were all dividend paying stocks. However, not all were consistent dividend growth stocks. He was very diversified across many stocks and sectors.
I think that the key points to learn from his success in becoming a Dividend Millionaire is that living frugally, saving, and investing in dividend stocks over the long haul can work.
In this installment of my series on Secret Dividend Millionaires I am highlighting the story of Grace Groner. She worked as a secretary at Abbot Laboratories (ABT) for 43 years. She died in 2010 at the age of 100 with a fortune of $7.2 million. She bequeathed that fortune to her alma mater, Lake Forest College in Illinois.
How did Grace Groner become wealthy and a Secret Dividend Millionaire? Well, after graduating college, she took a job in 1935 during the Great Depression as a secretary at Abbot. Reportedly, in her first year there, Grace bought three shares of Abbot at $60 per share for a total of $180. Yes, only three shares. She held those three shares for 75 years. Her three shares split many times and the dividends were reinvested. Those three shares became well over 100,000 shares by the time she died.
Grace Groner’s success was due to time, compounding, and dividend growth. Interestingly, her stock portfolio was not diversified at all. I don’t suggest that for most people.
Grace had the advantage of investing early and letting that investment compound over many years. She lived a very long life so that the initial $180 grew. Note that the intial investment grew through about 13 recessions, World War II, and other negative world events. If she had invested the initial $180 in savings account with a 3% interest rate, it would have only turned into $1,652.
Next, she reinvested the dividends allowing compounding to occur over a very long period of time. Her success also shows the power of dividend growth. Abbot has paid a growing dividend for 48 consecutive years. The stock is a Dividend Aristocrat. In addition, the company has declared a dividend for 385 straight quarters since 1924. Few companies can match that success and that was to the benefit of Grace Groner who became a Secret Dividend Millionaire.
In this installment of my series on Secret Dividend Millionaires I am highlighting the story of Hayford Pierce. Hayford Pierce was a science-fiction author. At the age of 53 in 1995, he sat down in a Tahitian café and began examining his investments. He had two groups of investments. One group were about a dozen higher yielding stocks, but these grew slowly. The other group were blue-chip stocks that grew faster. He largest holding was Philip Morris (PM). Hayford Pierce predicted that he would receive about $14,000 in dividends in 1995. He then made his plan of increasing the dividend payout 10% each year for 30 years.
In reality, he was able to increase the dividend payouts by 8.54% per year to 2017. He did not meet his goal for dividend growth rate but still the growth rate he did achieve was enough to make him a Dividend Millionaire. He did this by holding a concentrated portfolio of investments of common dividend growth stocks, master limited partnerships or ‘MLPs’, one bond, and one annuity. I do not think that this allocation is for everyone, but it worked for Hayford Pierce.
Today, he has nearly the same portfolio with some minor changes. Hayford Pierce gets about half of his income from the bond and annuity and the other half from the common stocks and MLPs. He does have one regret. He was not able to reinvest the dividends since he needed the income. If he had been able to reinvest the income, he would arguably be worth much more today.
In my opinion, Hayford Pierce did many of the things that dividend growth investors should do. He made a plan, he set a goal, he stayed the course, and he tracked his portfolio and tweaked it. Ultimately, Hayford Pierce leveraged the power of compounding over many years to meet his goal and became a Secret Dividend Millionaire.
In this installment of my series on Secret Dividend Millionaires I am highlighting the story of Anne Scheiber. She died in 1995 at the age of 101 and was a secret dividend millionaire. By the time that she died, Anne Scheiber had built a fortune of $22 million. She left her entire fortune to Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women and the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York City.
Anne Scheiber did not come from money nor did she ever have a large salary. Anne completed college and law school. She then worked as an IRS auditor and was never promoted. Interestingly, she was probably an early proponent of the Financial Independence, Retire Early or ‘FIRE’ movement. She retired at the age of 51 in 1944 with an annual pension of only $3,150 per year. Over the next 50 years Anne Scheiber turned about $5,000 in capital and her small pension into a $22 million fortune. How did Anne become so wealthy?
She was extremely frugal probably to the point of austerity. Reportedly, Anne Scheiber saved as much as 80% of her annual income. This is much higher than the 10% rate I mentioned above that America in aggregate is saving money or the 33% during the COVID-19 pandemic. She supposedly wore the same clothes for many years, lived in the same rent-controlled apartment for decades, did not have a family, and did not have much of a social life living as a recluse. This kind of lifestyle is probably a bit too frugal for most people. But still, it points to the importance of savings for building wealth.
She relied on the power of compounding. Anne Scheiber essentially followed a buy-and-hold strategy. She bought stocks and held on to them for decades reinvesting the dividends. Her longevity and time in the market worked to her advantage in the context of leveraging compounding and building wealth.
Anne Scheiber bought what she knew. By the time of her death, Anne owned stocks of many large cap companies including Bristol-Myers, Coca-Cola, Chrysler, Paramount, Pepsi, Schering-Plough, Exxon, Warner-Lambert, AlliedSignal, Rockwell, Pfizer, Loew’s, and other companies. In 1944, some of these companies were small, but most of the companies grew with time into giants generating capital appreciation and dividends to Anne’s benefit.
Anne Scheiber had some big successes in stock picking. At the time of her death, she had a few stocks that formed the bulk of her wealth despite owning many stocks overall. She had invested $10,000 in Schering-Plough in 1950. This eventually became $7.5 million at the time of her death. Her Coca-Cola stock increased in value from $28,000 to $720,000 in the last 15 years of her life. She also had major holdings in Loew’s, Pepsi, AlliedSignal, and Bristol-Myers. This points to the fact that some stocks will far outperform others.
Over time, Anne Scheiber out saved and out invested many people. She was also extremely patient and had the advantage of a long life. Admittedly, she may have been more frugal and more intensely involved in the stock market than most people. But still, she became a Secret Dividend Millionaire.
Kathleen and Robert Magowan
In this installment of Secret Dividend Millionaires, I want to talk about Kathleen and Robert Magowan. They were twins who in their later years lived together in their parents’ house in Simsbury, Connecticut. The house was roughly 100-years old and was not renovated.
The twins died within a year of each other, Robert in 2010 and Kathleen in 2011. Neither twin was married or had children. They invested in stocks, bonds, and war bonds and grew their combined fortune to $10 million. Kathleen Magowan donated part of the fortune to a local elementary school, college, nursing home, and church.
Kathleen Magowan did not have a particularly high paying job. She was originally a nurse but switched careers to teaching after getting her master’s degree in education. But she lived a frugal lifestyle and had no family. This likely minimized her expenses. She also inherited the family home from her parents, which meant that she had no mortgage. This was major advantage for her in building wealth as a mortgage is the main expense for many people.
Her twin brother, Robert Magowan, was a Prudential insurance agent. He reportedly had a knack for investing and made many of the investing decisions. He made the decision to invest in Ametek Inc, a Pennsylvania-based electric motor, pump, and instrument manufacturing company. This stock ended up being Kathleen’s biggest winner. Seemingly, this was one of those companies that no one just goes out and buys. So, Robert must have done the research to make the decision.
In the end the combination of frugal living and good investment decisions seems to have allowed the two siblings to amass a combined fortune of $10 million. They had little in the way of expenses and probably a high savings rate. The lesson learned is that one never knows what people have in the way of assets. How someone lives is not necessarily a reflection of their wealth.
In this installment of Secret Dividend Millionaires, I want to talk about Agnes Plumb. She is not your typical Secret Dividend Millionaire. Furthermore, her dividend growth stock portfolio was extremely concentrated. She owned one stock, Kellogg Company (K). She just owned a lot of it. By the time of her death in 1995 at age 88, her Kellogg stock was generating several hundred thousand annually in dividends. In this way her story was a lot like that of Grace Groner who also had a concentrated portfolio. How did Agnes Plumb become so wealthy?
Agnes Plumb’s wealth was probably not planned. She inherited her Kellogg stock from her father, Henry Plumb, a lawyer. It is not really clear when he acquired the stock. One story states that he knew the founder of Kellogg who convinced Henry to buy shares. In any case, Agnes Plumb inherited the stock upon his death and held onto it for decades. It is likely that Henry and Agnes owned the stock for over 50 years.
During that time the stock split many times and the dividend continued to grow. By the time of her death, Agnes Plumb owned over 1.3 million shares of Kellogg worth about $98 million. Since she never married and had no children. She donated her fortune to four charities and four couples who were her friends. The Crippled Children’s Society, the Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles, UCLA School of Medicine and the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis each got $22.5 million. The four couples each received $2 million.
What can we learn from the story of Agnes Plumb? She owned a dividend growth stock. Kellogg is not the most exciting stock to own. It makes breakfast food and other consumer staples. But it is not that volatile and has fairly consistent earnings over time. Next, revenue and earnings grow with time albeit slowly. This leads us to the concept of leveraging the power of compounding over long periods of time. She held her stock for decades through many recessions. One thing to note is that almost all of Agnes’ wealth was in the Kellogg stock. This led to concentration risk. If Kellogg had stumbled, then Agnes’ wealth would have taken a large hit. Such concentration in a single holding is probably not the best idea. Lastly, Agnes Plumb was frugal and lived simply. She obviously spent far less than she earned from her dividends.
In this installment of Secret Dividend Millionaires, I want to talk about Curt Degerman. So, Curt’s story is a little different that other Secret Dividend Millionaires. He rode around on his bike and collected bottles and cans for recycling in the town that he lived in Skelleftea, Sweden. He did not live into his 80’s, 90’s, or 100’s. He died of a heart attack at the age of 60 in 2008. By the time he died, he had amassed a fortune of about $1.4 million (12 million Swedish kroner at the time). He was never married and did not have a family of his own. Reportedly, Curt Degerman left his fortune to his cousin since he visited him every so often before his death, which was contested by Curt’s 92-year old uncle.
How did Curt Degerman become wealthy? He did not win the lottery or inherit money. Well, he would go the local library and spend his time reading financial newspapers. In time, he seemingly acquired knowledge about the stock market and investing. He invested the monies that he received from recycling bottles and cans in stocks and mutual funds. He also bought 124 bars of gold and owned the house that he lived in. For nearly 40 years he built his wealth in this way. His wealth totaled $1.4 million by the time that he died.
What lessons can we learn from Curt Degerman? Curt exhibited a very simple lifestyle. Some may argue that his lifestyle was extremely thrifty and eccentric. Note that I am not advocating his somewhat eccentric lifestyle. He acquired knowledge about investing and the stock market and made some smart investments. He did this despite not completing high school. In the end, Curt Degerman acquired his wealth through his own efforts. There is a larger lesson here as well. Most of us probably are not going to become the next Jeff Bezos or Warren Buffett. But if Curt Degerman can build a $1.4 million nest egg, so can the rest of us.
In this installment of Secret Dividend Millionaires, I want to talk about Phyllis Stone. Phyllis Stone died at the age of 91 in 2013. She left most of her $6 million in wealth to charities. She left the same amount of $885,642.89 to the Children’s Hospital at Albany Medical Center, Salvation Army, American Red Cross and the United Way of the Greater Capital Region. She also left money to American Heart Association, American Lung Association and Capital City Rescue Mission, which each received $250,000.
Phyllis Stone worked first in pharmaceutical laboratory in the 1950s. She then worked in the real estate division of Mobil Oil Corp in the Albany, NY for more than 30 years. Mobil eventually merged with Exxon and the new company was renamed ExxonMobil (XOM) in the late-1990s.
How did Phyllis Stone become wealthy? Reportedly, Phyllis bought Mobil stock many years ago. This stock grew through splits and dividend reinvestment to tens of thousands of shares of ExxonMobil. She also owned other stocks and bonds as well as her home. But the bulk of her wealth was in ExxonMobil stock. This was to her advantage has ExxonMobil has been a wealth compounder over time. The stock is also a Dividend Aristocrat.
Phyllis Stone exhibited characteristics consistent with many other Secret Dividend Millionaires. She bought stock early in a growing company. She lived simply and led a relatively fugal life. For instance, she drove the same car for many years and lived in the same 2-bedroom house for many years. Notably, Phyllis was seemingly not as eccentric as other Secret Dividend Millionaires. She reportedly had a circle of friends, a box at Saratoga Racecourse, and knew the Grateful Dead personally. Phyllis also let time be her ally and leveraged the power of compounding, which is a powerful lesson for those trying to build wealth. In the end, Phyllis Stone became a Secret Dividend Millionaire.
In this installment of Secret Dividend Millionaires, I want to talk about Jack Gsantner. Jack was another ordinary guy who became wealthy by living frugally and investing in dividend stocks and real estate. He died at the age of 84 in 2012. By the time he died he was worth $5.28 million. He died alone shortly after his wife of 55 years died. They had no children. His finances were also seemingly not well organized. It took many months to locate his will, which was 18-years old, and heirs, but many had died. Ultimately, most of the proceeds went to distant relatives and the tax man took a fairly big cut. This points to the importance of having an updated will and organized finances.
Jack Gsantner did not have particularly high paying jobs. He served in the U.S. Navy and graduate from Yale in 1948. He was billing clerk for Union Pacific Corporation (UNP) and also played bass for a popular Omaha orchestra. Seemingly, he was good with money and finances. Further, he and his wife lived very frugally in a simple house. However, some said he was frugal to the point of being miserly. One of his neighbors stated, “He never dressed like he had a dime.” In any case, Jack Gsanter became a secret dividend millionaire.
By the time he died Jack Gsantner owned his primary home, a town house in Arizona, several savings accounts with about $100,000 in each one. He also owned roughly 80 stocks and mutual funds including ExxonMobil (XOM), AT&T (T), Black Hills Corp (BKH), and many others.
There are some lessons here for many investors. First, make sure your will is up to date and your representative or executor knows where it is. Next, living frugally and simply is important for accumulating wealth, but at the same time don’t live like a miser. You really can’t take your wealth with you. You should enjoy the fruits of their labor when alive.
Lewis David Zagor
In this installment of Secret Dividend Millionaires, I want to talk about Lewis David Zagor. He is probably less well known than most of the Secret Dividend Millionaires. Lewis died at the age of 77 on December 5, 2013. By the time he died he built a good size fortune of $18 million. Despite his wealth he lived in a small rent-controlled apartment in NYC. He was also a hoarder as pictures of his apartment illustrate. He was survived by his third wife. However, this was another case where the Secret Dividend Millionaire did not have a will complicating handling of his estate. Again, this points to the importance of making a will and taking care of your financial paperwork.
Lewis David Zagor was not like some of the other Secret Dividend Millionaires. He was in the U.S. Navy in his youth. Later, he earned a doctorate in business administration and worked on Wall Street. So, Lewis had an advantage compared to most of us. But as the other Secret Dividend Millionaires that I have written about demonstrate, you do not need to work on Wall Street to build wealth. You just need to follow the three principles of the dividend millionaires.
How did Lewis David Zagor build his fortune? He owned stocks, bonds, cash, expensive silverware, and collectibles. I have not been able to find details on the stocks that he owned. But reportedly, he was earning a pretty healthy income stream from the ones that paid dividends. Lewis would go on shopping sprees at Saks Fifth Avenue and also travel based on that income.
The main lesson here is to make sure your will is up to date and your representative or executor knows where it is. Next, living frugally and simply is important for accumulating wealth. Perhaps the extent of scrimping exhibited by Lewis David Zagor was a bit much. But still you must spend less than you earn to build wealth.
Sylvia Bloom died at the age of 96 in 2016. When she died, she had a fortune of more than $9 million, and was another dividend reinvestment millionaire. She never had a high paying job. She was legal secretary who worked at the same law firm, which is now Gottlieb, Steen, & Hamilton in New York City for 67 years. Since she never had children of her own, she left the bulk of her fortune to charity. Henry Street Settlement, a social services group, received $6.24 million. Another $1 million went to Hunter College, and another $1 million went to a scholarship fund. The rest of her wealth was divided amongst friends and family.
Sylvia Bloom lived in a modest and frugal life in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn. She packed her own lunch. Reportedly, she was not showy, did not call attention to herself, and did not talk about money. She was married to, Raymond Margolies, a fire fighter, who died in 2002. She took the subway to work on most days. She earned her college degree from Hunter College attending night classes while working.
She joined the relatively new (at the time) law firm, Cleary Gottlieb as a secretary in 1947. So, her salary was probably fairly modest for much of her life. However, she turned her salary into a fortune of over $9 million. Her strategy was fairly simple. She built her wealth by paying attention to the investments of the attorneys in her office, who were often asking her to relay their investment choices in the stock market to their brokers. Sylvia Bloom’s niece indicated that “…when the boss would buy a stock, she would make the purchase for him and then buy the same stock for herself, but in a smaller amount because she was on a reporter’s salary.”
Sylvia Bloom was obviously a shrewd investor. When she died her wealth was split between 11 banks and three brokerage houses. She was not formally trained in investing. She learned about it on her own like many of us. It is not entirely clear which stocks Sylvia Bloom owned, but reportedly ExxonMobil (XOM) and Colgate-Palmolive (CL) were amongst them. These companies have grown wealth for many decades. Using a dividend reinvestment calculator and assuming that Sylvia Bloom had invested $1,000 in ExxonMobil in 1970 it would have grown to about $2.9 million with an annualized return of 18.7% in mid-2016. An investment in Colgate-Palmolive would have grown to over $6.3 million with an annualized return in the same time period.
The combination of a frugal lifestyle, saving her money, and her longevity allowed her to become another dividend reinvestment millionaire. She was a child of Great Depression and knew what it was like to not have too much money and she lived below her means allowing her to save money. Her longevity would permit her investments to leverage the power of compounding. We all know how important that is for building wealth through dividend stocks.
Russ Gremel led a simple life, and few knew that he was a millionaire. He lived in the same brick house for almost 95 years. He drove a Dodge Omni that was more than 25 years old. Russ Gremel ate inexpensive meals such as oatmeal and stew. When talking about himself he stated, “I’m a simple man.” And “I never let anybody know that I had that kind of money.” Reportedly, he grew up poor since his family lost everything after the 1929 stock market crash. He never married and did not have children. He first worked as a lawyer and retired at age 45. He was scoutmaster for the rest of his life. He died at the age of 99 in 2018.
How did Russ Gremel become wealthy considering the fact that he retired so early? I guess he can be considered a very early follower of the FIRE movement. I like to think that he achieved FIRE at age 45 for his simple lifestyle. Russ Gremel took a risk and bought about $1,007 of Walgreens (WBA) stock roughly 70 years before he died. His brother was said to have advised him that people would always need medicine and women would buy makeup making Walgreens a wise investment. As we are all aware, Walgreens grew into the one the largest pharmacy chains in the U.S. Walgreens eventually merged with Boots expanding its reach globally. Walgreens market capitalization is a little over $45 billion right now.
Russ Gremel never sold his shares. Before he died in 2018, he donated his wealth to charity. Since he liked wildlife, he donated ~28,000 shares or $2 million to the Illinois Audubon Society which created the 395-acre Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary.
Russ Gremel became a millionaire by accident since I think that selecting one stock and only investing $1,007 is a bit lucky. However, his simple lifestyle and longevity helps as well in leveraging the power of compounding.
Final Thoughts on the Secret Dividend Millionaires
Most of the Secret Dividend Millionaires were everyday people who could have been your neighbor. They did not start a business or win the lottery. Rather they earned a regular salary. But through a methodical process of savings, investing, and reinvesting dividends they were able to become Secret Dividend Millionaires. They followed the three principles I outlined above. Additionally, they stayed motivated on the road to financial independence. I will add to this list of people as I discover and read about new ones. Check back every now and then and you can read new stories about your favorite Secret Dividend Millionaire.
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