Billionaires love sunshine and low taxes — but not always.
By Monica Hunter-Hart, Contributor
“California used to be the Golden State. Now it’s rusted and destroyed,” says energy drinks magnate Russ Weiner. In a way, the state’s flush with gold; California is a treasure trove of extreme wealth. But some of its most affluent residents, including Weiner (worth an estimated $4.8 billion as of the date of publishing), have also been moving away, Forbes finds in a 20-year analysis of the annual Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans.
California has consistently been home to more members of The Forbes 400 than any other state, and now has 87. But that’s six fewer than two decades ago. Plenty of California-based tech tycoons moved on and off the list over the years as their fortunes fluctuated with the stock market, but some disappeared because billionaires just up and left. Over the past 20 years, while gaining new Forbes 400 residents, California lost 19 of them to other states, particularly Texas, Nevada and Florida, where Rockstar Energy drink founder Weiner moved in 2009.
What made him want to skip town? “Crime, homelessness, education, taxes,” he says. Oh, and Democrats.
Weiner is far from the only uber-wealthy entrepreneur who’s been chasing both rays and lower taxes. Florida and Texas, which have neither state income tax nor state capital gains tax, both saw dramatic 20-year upticks in residents who made the 400 list. Texas went from 36 to 45, a 25% jump, while Florida — stunningly — doubled from 23 to 46 members of the list. Most of the increase in Florida came from Forbes 400 members moving there. That includes the likes of hedge fund tycoon Ken Griffin, a former longtime resident of Chicago, who also relocated his firm Citadel to Miami because he said it offered a better corporate environment; Paychex founder Tom Golisano, who said he was escaping New York’s high taxes when he moved to Naples in 2009; Charles B. Johnson, who moved to Palm Beach from California after retiring from money management firm Franklin Resources; and Thomas Peterffy of Interactive Brokers, who left Connecticut around 2015, also for Palm Beach.
An outsized number of the last decade’s Florida transplants came from the northeastern elite enclaves of New York, Connecticut and Illinois, and most made their fortunes in finance and investments. A far smaller amount of the list’s new Floridians created fortunes in the Sunshine State from the start, like Nick Caporella, whose National Beverage makes the popular La Croix bubbly water.
The picture is much dimmer in the Midwest, which has been shedding the extremely wealthy. The number of richest Americans there dropped 42% over the past two decades, from 73 to 42, mostly because Heartland billionaires’ fortunes decreased or didn’t keep pace with the rest of the country. (The cutoff to make the Forbes 400 rose from $600 million in 2003 to $2.9 billion in 2023.) But some just moved to warmer pastures, like movie producer Gigi Pritzker (who changed her permanent address from Chicago to California around 2019) or two heirs to the Walmart fortune (from Missouri to Texas and Nevada).
And about 30% of Midwesterners on the 2003 and 2013 Forbes 400 lists have since dropped off because they passed away. In the last few years, that’s included iconic figures like Berkshire Hathaway’s Walter Scott Jr. (a former Omaha resident who was a close friend of Warren Buffett) and Chicago’s Sam Zell (forefather of the modern real estate investment trust), and a bit before them, William Ford Sr, the last grandchild of Henry Ford, who lived in Michigan. The manufacturing industry saw a particularly high number of drop-offs — paralleling the decades-long manufacturing decline in the Midwest — as did media, real estate and retail.
Minnesota has been hit hardest. It ranked No. 9 among states with the most 400 members in 2003, when there were 11, but has now been completely drained out. A single family had an outsized impact on that decline. The clan behind the world’s biggest agriculture company, Cargill, used to be concentrated in the North Star State, where the business is still based. But Cargill’s old guard has died and the richest family members are now scattered across the country in Montana, Wisconsin, Missouri and California.
This scenario — where a company’s big shareholders live far from the company itself — is actually not unusual. And it may be even more common these days in a place like Minnesota, says the Tax Foundation’s Jared Walczak.
“Minnesota does very well with traditional C corporations,” says Walczak. “It’s high taxes, but those high taxes historically have not fallen very heavily on businesses, so it’s been a very competitive place to operate your Fortune 500 company. But you also have a situation where states like this may be unattractive for the C-suites themselves,” perhaps in part because of those higher individual taxes. And in an increasingly mobile environment, he points out, not even high-level executives need to live where they work.
Although taxes matter, Walczak and other analysts stress that it’s far from the only consideration for billionaires when it comes to planning where to live. It often isn’t even the top factor.
“Many state lawmakers overestimate how sensitive rich people are to a few percentage points’ difference in the state tax rate,” says Carl Davis of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Richard Auxier of the Tax Policy Center agrees: “If you’re in West Virginia or Michigan and you think the taxes are the only thing that’s different about your state and Florida and Texas, I really need you to think a bit harder.”
Instead, the decision of where to live is hyper-personal, they say, noting that being closer to family is a frequent reason why billionaires move. The uber-wealthy also pursue top education systems, keeping in mind both their kids as well as their company workforces. Urban amenities are a big draw. So are safe neighborhoods, good infrastructure and centers of culture.
The culture is what AriZona Iced Tea founder Don Vultaggio, raised in Brooklyn and worth an estimated $5.6 billion, loves about New York City. (Vultaggio now lives outside the city, in the Long Island enclave of Port Washington.) He remembers a conversation he once had with Andrew Cuomo: “‘Governor, businesses don’t mind paying taxes. We like it here. Museums, theater. It’s great.’” Many must agree, as the number of New Yorkers on the 400 shot up 27% over the past two decades, from 49 to 62.
Extreme wealth has been consolidating in the United States. Back in 2003, the 10 states with the most 400 members had 275 of them; today, they have 297. Exactly 60% of the billionaires who made the list this year live in just four states: California, New York, Florida and Texas — the four states with the largest populations, together home to one third of all Americans. “The growing geographic concentration helps explain our populist politics these days,” says Darrell West, author of the 2014 book Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust. “Much of the country is being left behind in terms of economic activity.”
A handful of states — Maine, Delaware, North Dakota, New Mexico and Alaska — haven’t had a resident make The Forbes 400 list in at least two decades. On the other hand, the picture has been getting much rosier in places like Arizona and Georgia, which joined the top 10 states for the first time in 2014 (when the latter was tied with Maryland and Tennessee at 7 list members) and now ranks No. 6 with 10 Forbes 400 residents. Iowa and Kentucky both had no 400 members in 2003 and now each have one: Harry Stine (worth an estimated $8.8 billion, who joined the list in 2014), and Tamara Gustavson ($7.4 billion, 2011), respectively.
This is also a great year for Mississippi, which made the list for only the second time in two decades. Joining the ranks of the richest are Hattiesburg’s Duff brothers, who are behind the holding company Duff Capital Investors, which owns construction, energy and trucking firms.
“Mississippi is a good place to do business, mainly because of our people, who are hard-working, optimistic and dedicated to providing a better future for their families,” says Thomas Duff, who’s worth an estimated $3 billion. “Keeping a Mississippi-based operation for our companies has helped us stay true to our values.”
Sitting at the very bottom of the Forbes wealth ranking is Alaska, which has never had a resident make the 400 list since it was first published in 1982. That does constitute a loss for the Last Frontier.
“You would love to have billionaires living in your state,” says the Tax Policy Center’s Auxier, explaining that the attraction is not just tax revenue but also the companies the wealthy often start or bring. “Someone just sitting on their money, they’ll take them, they don’t want to lose them — but if you talk to someone in these states, what they really want is a billionaire who is participating in the economy and hopefully has businesses in the state.”
Of course, there’s only so much a state can do to court the rich. With great wealth comes great mobility. The Americans with the deepest pockets will go where they want.
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