Cowboy Heroes

Bill Clark.

Bill was a millionaire back when that actually meant something. He used to say, not in a bragging way, but in an encouraging way, “I reached my goal of becoming a millionaire when I was 37.” No small feat, as the date would have been 1961. He did not stop there however. Bill’s uncle, Fred, used to tell him, “Think big and leave the pack behind.”

Bill never forgot those words and repeated them often. He used to say uncle Fred always went for it in a big way; broke, bankrupt and riches were cycles Fred knew about, but in the end, it was mostly riches. “It’s just as easy to go broke over a thousand dollars as it is over a million!” Fred would advise, “But the plan is to learn from your mistakes and not go broke at all.”

Bill Edward Clark was born near Larned, Kansas in 1924. At the beginning of the Great Depression, the family headed west to the Galiuro Mountains of Arizona. Bill’s parents were schoolteachers and his mother had landed a job there at a small one-room schoolhouse at a place whose name has long since been erased from maps. He was the only white student at the school where rancher and miner children came to learn. Being the teachers kid didn’t make matters any better. Bill would grin and shrug his shoulders when remembering those early school days, “It made me tough, I learned Spanish and some Indian words as well . . . and to fight.”

After a few years, the family relocated to Scottsdale, AZ where both parents got better jobs. Bill played football for the six-man team, graduating in 1942. Shortly after entering the University of Arizona, he decided to join the Navy instead and spent World War II on a battleship in the North Pacific. Upon his return to civilian life, Bill embarked upon the trail of a true entrepreneur.

Never one to shy away from hard physical labor, Bill was often referred to as “the Energizer Bunny” . . . he just kept going and going . . . He went to work for a farmer picking fruit. Instead of taking his paycheck in cash, Bill soon learned he could make a better deal if he took most of it in trade. This was the beginning of his first fruit stand. In true entrepreneur fashion, Bill soon had deals made with several area farmers and had to hire helpers to assist him in his burgeoning business.

Once the fruit stand was going well, Bill expanded into the roofing business. As a roofer, it wasn’t uncommon to see him on top of a house in 100-plus degree heat doing the work himself. Bill, always looking for opportunity, discovered there wasn’t much competition in the booming, mining area around Globe, AZ so he went there. Upon finding the locals a tight-knit bunch, he walked to every house along the main road and offered to do their roof or put new siding on their house for the ridiculously low price of just about what it cost him . . . with the condition that no one tell the price.

Bill soon had all the advertising he needed as everyone wanted their house to look as good as the ones along main street and he bragged that at one time or another his crews roofed or sided all most every house in the Globe-Miami area!

Back at the fruit stand (which was in the country at 48th street and Thomas in Scottsdale), Bill’s business had grown to the point where he now bought a farm of his own to help keep up with demand. He also opened another fruit stand in the Phoenix area. As Bill’s enterprises grew, he expanded the farming operation as much as possible. Farming and ranching were close to his heart. Before long he had his own packing company (Clark Packers of Tempe) and owned most of the citrus growing land around what is today Queen Creek, AZ. Some of Bill’s old groves are still there with housing subdivisions intertwined throughout. Driving around Queen Creek one time, he beamed with pride at the big beautiful homes planted among his citrus trees. He wasn’t bragging about the homes, he was proud of the trees, most of which he had personally planted, still thriving there years later.

Bill used to say,“There is opportunity everywhere; you just have to find it.” As his financial situation grew he was able to play bigger games, moving into real estate investments. “Buying is easy, it’s selling that’s the hard part,” he would say. “You have to make sure and have a plan for a property when you buy it. Don’t just buy something because it’s a good deal, what if you have to own it a while? Can it pay for itself?” Bill liked to buy farms and ranches because he understood agriculture and could always find something to do with the place until it sold. Later in life he also invested in prime land, building houses.

In the late 1960s, Bill, always an adventurer, sold most of his holdings and bought an entire town in Alaska. Located near Yakutat, the small town consisted of a fish cannery, store, saloon, boarding house and a large fishing boat. Other than a few private residences, Bill owned it all. The only way in or out was by air, sea or sled dogs. It was a rough and tumble kind of frontier town straight out of a scene from the century before. Bill even told of once being thrown through the window of his own saloon! Getting his fill of Alaska after a few years, Bill moved once again to Arizona where he spent the rest of his life cattle ranching, farming, and developing real estate. He owned ranches in New Mexico and Arizona, developed land in pretty much every southwestern state including the California coast and even owned a motel in the resort town of Pinetop, AZ for a while. Bill was constantly helping folks out; financial advice, a buck to the down and out, rides for hitchhikers and even a bible now and then were all ways he assisted others. Once when he gave financial advice not well received, he was told, “That’s not the way most people do it.”

Bill responded in typical Bill fashion, “Well, let me tell you, about 10 percent of the people in this country make around 90 percent of the money . . . so it stands to reason that most of the people are wrong about finances most of the time! If you want good advice about money, get it from someone who knows how to make it, I mean really knows how to make it. I don’t mean someone with a good job, because a job is just a job, and with very few exceptions, jobs, even better paying ones, will never make you rich. If you want sound financial advice, talk to someone who has made themselves a lot of money!”

Another thing Bill used to say a lot was, “Anybody in this country has the same opportunity as anyone else. It isn’t only the people born into privilege who make it big; actually it’s the opposite most of the time. People who use their background as an excuse will get no sympathy from me . . . shoot, I’m living proof, if I can make it, anybody can!” Bill was raised during the Great Depression, rode a horse to school, had parents who struggled financially and made every dime he ever had the old fashioned way; with his own two hands and his ingenuity! Having several different partners at one time or another on this project or that, Bill always advised against getting too deep into partnerships, especially with friends or family members. “You still have to have Thanksgiving dinner with them no matter what happens, you know.” But the partner Bill disliked the most was his Uncle Sam. “I wouldn’t mind the government taking some of my money if they were helping people out with it, but they take more than their fair share and then go and give it to a bunch of lazy so and so’s who won’t even find a job and help themselves!” “Entitlement” was a cuss word to Bill. He often used the quote, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

If he had any regrets, it would be that all those years spent making money and working so hard, he neglected family relations. Bill once said, “Looking back on it now, I can see where I wasn’t home nearly enough. My method of being a good husband and father was to make more money and buy them things; I know now that is not the best way. I could have sacrificed a few hours working to spend more time with my family and still made plenty. That’s how I would do it if I had it to do over again.” Bill would often smile when people would say things like, “There just isn’t enough time in the day” or “I don’t have enough time to get it all done.” He would reply, “Sleep is over rated. You’re probably wasting the hours between mid-night and 5 a.m.” Then he would laugh, but there were years when he was struggling to make it where that thought held a lot of truth to him. “Sleep a few hours when you get tired and then get back at it. That’s what Edison did.” Bill shook his head in astonishment as he poured over the headlines proclaiming America’s consumer debt. “Don’t these people know you can never make it if you’re drowning in debt?” Then he would explain, “Having and wanting nicer things is the American way. It’s what I want, too. But you should never buy things that put you into debt. Save the money you have for a down payment on whatever it is and go invest it into something that will make you money instead. Then, later on, you can buy whatever it is you wanted with the profits and still have money to make more money with!”

The only acceptable debt to Bill was investment debt . . . and then you still need to be careful. “There were times in my life when I didn’t know how I was going to get it all covered. Somehow, though, I just kept working at it and believing I could do it and sure enough, it always worked out.” Bill Clark was definitely one of those 10th percentile who understood how money is made. He was an American entrepreneur, a true tale of “the dream.” n