Meet the Millionaires

Maricopa County has the third-largest population of millionaires in the country, but are their lives all made of champagne wishes and caviar dreams?


Published by: Phoenix Magazine, August 2008

Jim Engel has given up looking for fellow millionaires around the Valley. At least for the moment.

“Seems like there’s zero of them out there today,” says Engel, a successful Ahwatukee mortgage lender who, up until this summer, co-ran monthly meetings of the Millionaire's Club in the East Valley, hosting motivational talks by other self-made millionaires.

“Everyone I’ve seen these days, outside of doctors and dentists, is really hurting,” he says. “Restaurant owners, business owners, mortgage brokers, real estate agents – they’re all just trying to stay afloat.”

Even Engel, who estimates his own net worth somewhere between $3 and $5 million, is hardly relaxing by the pool. Running eight minutes late for a series of Monday-evening appointments he doesn’t expect to get out of until after 9 p.m., Engel confesses he’s been feeling “squished to death” by the pressures of maintaining that income.

“I’m working seven days a week myself just to keep my mortgage business flying above the fray,” he says, catching his breath. “I’ve seen so much carnage.”

Who wants to be a millionaire, indeed?

Actually, contrary to Engel’s personal findings, there are plenty of millionaires in the Valley – 126,394, to be exact. In the May 2008 annual survey of wealthy households conducted by the London-based TNS Global, the leading market research provider for the financial services industry, Maricopa County ranked third in the nation for highest number of millionaire residents, coming in just behind Los Angeles County and Cook County (Chicago).

But just because the Valley now has more millionaires than New York City (ninth ranked Nassau County), Silicon Valley (eighth ranked Santa Clara County), and other large metro areas, that doesn’t mean it’s all champagne wishes and caviar dreams for the Phoenix-area households with a $1 million-plus net worth.

What the statistics also reveal is that roughly half of those millionaire residents, at a median age of 66, are retired, leading some to speculate that many of Phoenix’s newest millionaires are actually retirees cashing out of their residences in California or other states hard-hit by the housing bust and moving to the more affordable Valley.

After all, the lifestyle a million dollars bought in 1980 costs more than 2.5 million to maintain today (factoring in inflation). Even BMW and Mercedes owners are griping at the gas pumps.

“People always tell me, ‘Rich people don’t shop at your stores,’” says Ann Siner, CEO and founder of My Sister's Closet and other consignment stores, who left a marketing position at Petsmart to start the business that has made her a multi-mllionaire. “And I say, ‘Where do you think rich people got their money?’ They got it by being smart and they didn’t blow it. They know how to budget, and they love a bargain! And it’s certainly nice to have affordable everything in Phoenix.”

Millionaires also like the Valley, home to seven top Fortune 1000 companies, for its acceptance of entrepreneurial pioneers.

Indian-born Dr. John Kapoor arrived in this country in 1964 with five dollars in his pocket and a financial support grant from the University at Buffalo School of Pharmacy. He later persuaded investors to help him buy out the division of the generic drug company he worked for, and grew the company from a $4 million to $172 million enterprise in eight years. He then sold it to Japanese investors in 1990 to start his present company, E.J. Financial Enterprises, a healthcare consulting and investing firm.

But the 64-year-old Kapoor, who owns a home in the Valley as well as Chicago, recently dived into a whole new career as a Scottsdale restauranteur, opening a pair of eateries, Bombay Spice and Roka Akor, that have already become critical faves.

“The Indian community is very entrepreneurial,” says Kapoor. “And I think my entrepreneurial spirit comes from wanting to make my own decisions.

“What got my entrepreneurial spirit going was, in my first job, I was part of a bigger corporation,” Kapoor adds. “And every time I would make a decision, it would go through the corporation and would get buried somewhere. Very frustrating. I thought, ‘There is a better way of making a living’ – and that is by being your own boss. And this is a great place to do that.”

Perhaps part of the reason Engel had trouble finding recruits for his Millionaires Club is that many of Maricopa’s millionaires enjoy the lack of pretense that comes with living in a city that still can’t believe it’s the nation’s fifth largest.

Indeed, it was difficult to persuade each of our millionaires to speak of their wealth, but we did our best. What follows is a snapshot of three Valley high rollers.


Photos by Jeff Newton