AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Why do some of us succeed more than others? What do we think explains our prosperity or the lack of it? Those questions struck me as arising obliquely from this year's campaign polemics about wealth, class warfare, and the role of government.
So, a couple of weeks ago, on a visit to the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, I asked several people - of various income levels - what factors they think account for their economic station in life. Among those people: a farm worker's daughter who hopes to enroll in a nursing program while working at McDonald's; a victim of downsizing who went from selling pharmaceuticals, for more than $200,000 a year to selling used cars and living, as he says, car to car; and a recent Wellesley graduate who studied Russian, but is now happily employed, editing a medical journal.
They all live and work in and around Raleigh, North Carolina. What do they make of the good fortune or the hard times they've seen? Well, over the next three days, we'll hear from them and from others. Today, we'll start with a couple of people who are extremely successful.
BOB HATLEY: This office is 40,000 square feet. We have just about occupied all. In fact, we're getting ready to add some more offices to where we are now.
SIEGEL: This is Bob Hatley showing off the headquarters of Paragon Commercial Bank. Hatley is 62 years old, six-foot-four, lean, and brimming with self-confidence. He runs Paragon and he founded it. It services mid-sized businesses. There are no branches or tellers, just this headquarters in Raleigh and an office in Charlotte. Hatley grew up in a small North Carolina city near Charlotte.
HATLEY: My dad was a career military guy, but he never went above the rank of master sergeant in the Army. And he retired when I was in the seventh grade, moved back to his hometown of Concord, where he grew up. And he was a child of millworkers, because that's what Concord - it was a mill town. Cannon Mills was started there. We never had a whole lot when he retired. We never knew we were poor, but we probably were close to it.
SIEGEL: Today, Bob Hatley is nowhere close to being poor. He started Paragon Bank in 1998. By 2009, it reached a billion dollars in assets. He says he's worth about $5 million. When he talks about his success, he talks about wanting it. Competing for it.
HATLEY: I like to win. I like to be successful. I know people who have done very well in whatever line of work they've been in, and I wanted to be the same way. I wanted to have the trappings of success.
SIEGEL: He told me the big decision that led to his success was moving to Raleigh, going to work for Wachovia Bank and meeting the right people.
HATLEY: I happened to be in coffee breaks with successful people. I was going on calls with successful people. I was picking up the paper, reading about successful people that I would soon be working with. And I attribute so much of it to that.
SIEGEL: I ran a checklist past Bob Hatley. Did these other factors contribute to his wealth? Hard work.
HATLEY: I think there's no substitute for hard work. I don't think anybody can sleepwalk their way through success. You know, you got people that maybe inherited a lot of money, maybe they don't work have to as hard to keep it. But that certainly was not my case.
HATLEY: Thank God brains is not number one on the list.
HATLEY: I think interpersonal skills trumps brains.
SIEGEL: Well, that's what I was going to ask you; social skills, interpersonal skills.
HATLEY: I learned a long time ago, it's a lot of times it's not what you know, it's who know. And there's no substitute for that. I've taught my daughters that.
SIEGEL: Government programs.
HATLEY: I'm a Republican. You know I'm not going to...
HATLEY: ...say a whole lot of positive things about government programs. Even though I will say that everybody is subsidized by the government in one form or fashion. We all get our mortgage deductions. We complain about subsidies, but we all get them in some form or fashion.
SIEGEL: Family background or, for that matter, race or gender.
HATLEY: Well, I mean, again, I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. We were comfortable. But people who use their family as an excuse not to achieve, I have no patience with.
HATLEY: I think a lot of luck comes into play, but I've always advocated that you make your own luck. You know, you put yourself in position, the lucky things come to you. Got to do a lot of golf analogies. I'll run in a 35-foot putt and I'll be accused of luck, and a certain amount is. But if I had lousy mechanics, the ball would never get close to the hole anyway.
SIEGEL: Bob Hatley says that Paragon Bank has come through tough times in the recession, but he says it's healthy now. And he intends to make it bigger and to continue to succeed.
Next, Michael and Amy Tiemann of Chapel Hill, North Carolina where they live far more modestly than their means would allow.
DR. AMY TIEMANN: Hi.
ROBERT TIEMANN: Hi, I'm Robert, too.
TIEMANN: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: They're in their 40s. They live on a pleasant suburban street in Chapel Hill; visibly prosperous but not opulent. No gate. No McMansions. No Bentleys in sight. Amy is a writer, media producer and educator with a PhD in Neuroscience. Michael is an executive at Red Hat, a software company. Back in Silicon Valley, he was a pioneer of Open Source Software.
TIEMANN: I started a company in Silicon Valley in 1989. I spent two years trying to gin up the interest among the business community to start that company for me, and I would be a technical resource. And I failed to attract any interest whatsoever. And the epiphany that I had was that if nobody was interested in starting this company, I'd have no competition.
TIEMANN: And if I had no competition, how could I fail? And with that new idea, I quickly recruited two other people in Palo Alto to start this company. We each pooled together $5,000, of which I only had money in my checking account to post the first $2,000. So I was already $3,000 in debt to my co-founders when we started the company. But that business, 10 years later, sold to Red Hat for $687 million.
SIEGEL: The Tiemanns are not worth that much personally. But they admit, with great reticence, to wealth of about 25 million.
TIEMANN: The state of the union is strong, Robert.
TIEMANN: But seriously, we understand that we've been very, very lucky.
TIEMANN: And we live a pretty, for the most part, I'd say we live a pretty normal lifestyle; that we are choosing to live a normal lifestyle.
SIEGEL: The Tiemanns were raised by parents who were educated and who paid for them to be educated, Michael at Andover and Penn, Amy at Brown and Stanford. On their kitchen counter, there's a photo displayed of them at a White House holiday party with the Obamas. They've been generous donors to Democratic campaigns. I ran a checklist of factors past the Tiemanns, just as I had with Bob Hatley. How much had these things figured in their success, starting with hard work.
TIEMANN: Absolutely, a few - when I was working really, really hard, I had not time to spend any money. So what little money I was earning, I was able to save. And that gave me choices in the future about how much I could afford to reinvest into the company by taking a trip and opening offices in Europe. Or taking a trip and establishing a relationship in Japan that is still strong.
TIEMANN: That's a - the only reason I hesitate on that is because when I was living in Silicon Valley during the dotcom episode, there were many people who were far less intelligent, objectively than almost all of my friends and they were spectacularly wealthy, because they were spectacularly lucky.
SIEGEL: In fact, both Michael and Amy, who have benefited from his genuinely creative work and dogged perseverance, both speak a lot about luck.
TIEMANN: But when I think of luck, I also think of being fortunate to be born when the Internet revolution, the personal computer revolution, was happening. I think that's just the most extraordinary time to be part of. And obviously there are so many business opportunities tied to that. So that's part of what I think of when I think of luck.
SIEGEL: And when I asked about government programs, Michael Tiemann said that his original research, back in Silicon Valley, was supported by government money; money from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA.
TIEMANN: I was a proud poster child. I would go to Washington and talk about how imaginative and creative and how empowering U.S. research dollars had been.
SIEGEL: The Tiemanns were, frankly, embarrassed to talk with me about their wealth. They were not at all embarrassed to talk about the biggest project they're spending some of it on. Years before Silicon Valley, Michael Tiemann was a choirboy and he studied piano. He says that music was vital in shaping him.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: This year, he and Amy opened a recording studio called Manifold, on a patch of Carolina woods. To call Manifold a state-of-the-art facility is to give today's recording studios too much credit. It is an audio engineer's dream works.
LIZZY ROSS: (Singing) We've got enough to think of myself...
SIEGEL: Watching with Amy, as a local singer Lizzy Ross recorded a new song at Manifold, I felt this must be another impetus to acquire wealth - the passionate desire to do something creative with it.
ROSS: (Singing) Students in bars and agents for stars way in the...
SIEGEL: The Tiemanns and banker Bob Hatley inhabit the most rarefied altitudes of the American economy and their accounts of how they got there differ dramatically. Tomorrow, we'll put the same questions to people whose incomes are typically middle class. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.