The World’s Most Unusual Billionaires
There’s just something about billionaires.
The world has plenty of celebrity billionaires with larger-than-life personas made even more outlandish by their outsized wallets.
And there are more of them now than ever before — more than 2,000 at last count.
Maybe it’s their wealth, or how they acquired it, that makes them so fascinating or reviling. But no matter if you’re envious or inspired by ungodly rich people, it’s hard to ignore them.
We like billionaires, and we like them to be odd and eccentric. But not so much so that they’re always in the news — like Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Richard Branson or Bill Gates. Or the 45th president of the United States.
In compiling this list of odd billionaires, we looked for a certain edge or two that makes them unique. And we wanted to find people who aren’t household names. Our decidedly non-scientific approach went for the “je ne sais quoi” among the world’s most well-heeled.
In no particular order, they are ...
Worth: $650 million (Forbes, 2017)
For starters, we are bending the rules here, but this might be the oddest billionaire story of all.
There exists a person in this world, a woman, who cared so little about having three commas attached to her net worth that she reduced those commas to two (albeit a heavy two).
That woman is J.K. Rowling, who only five years ago was estimated to have amassed a billion-dollar fortune thanks to her creative whims. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and movies are popular beyond belief: the seven books have sold 450 million-plus copies worldwide and the movies brought in $7.7 billion on their own.
But instead of maintaining the exclusive title of self-made billionaire, Rowling donated some $150 million to various charitable causes and thus became a mere multimillionaire.
Perhaps being a single mother living on welfare before her fame and fortune gives Rowling a different perspective on wealth. Either way, we applaud her for being a unique force in a world all too obsessed with riches.
Residence: London, Cyprus
Worth: $9.9 billion (Forbes, 2017)
When you’re a billionaire who’s known as the “lifeline of the Ayatollah” and the “Viking king,” chances are you’re an oddball. Such is the case with shipping magnate John Fredriksen.
Fredriksen used to be Norway’s richest man until he defected to Cyprus in the mid-1990s to avoid taxes (he lives in the Chelsea neighborhood of London in a $172 million estate). He controls the largest fleet of supertankers in the world. He’s a high school dropout who made his own fortune. And he likes to make potentially life-changing business decisions on his gut instinct alone.
It all started in the 1960s when Fredriksen began trading oil in Beirut before running U.S. military supply shipments to the Mekong Delta amid the Vietnam War, according to a 2012 profile by Bloomberg. It was in the ‘80s when he would acquire the title of “lifeline to the Ayatollah” for handling crude oil shipments for Iran first under the U.S. embargo following the embassy seizure in 1979 and then during the Iran-Iraq conflict.
This relationship would sour quickly after the Iranian national tanker company stopped making lease payments for Fredriksen’s tankers, leading Iran to try to forcibly reclaim its goods using navy fighter ships. Fredriksen eventually agreed to sell Iran the tankers, which avoided further conflict.
Aside from such international intrigue, Fredriksen is a man set in his ways. Per Bloomberg: “Proudly old school, Fredriksen shuns computers and is fond of wearing a cravat. He insists on reading everything on paper and personally maintains records on his companies in 19 suitcases. He constantly rummages through them at his Chelsea office, hunting for patterns that will help him discern the state of play in the tanker cycle.”
Worth: $1.25 billion (Forbes, 2017)
If you’re a former pro tennis AND ice hockey star who became a billionaire, you’re the kind of odd we want to know. It also helps when you have nicknames like “Count Dracula” and “Brasov Bulldozer,” speak upwards of nine languages, and you were once known to eat six steaks, four plates of pasta, and 12 eggs just for breakfast.
“The mustache is still there, graying at the ends, and it still suggests, as John McPhee once wrote, ‘that this man has been to places most people do not imagine exist,’” reads a fantastic 1993 bio of Ion Tiriac in the New York Times.
Known for his deadpan humor and expressionless face, it’s said that few people have ever seen Tiriac smile. He was an Olympic hockey player for Romania before switching to tennis, where his greatest feat was winning the men’s doubles title at the 1970 French Open. He made his fortune after his playing career, founding Romania’s first post-communist bank in 1990, which he named after himself. He also got into retail, insurance, autos, and airlines in his home country. And he even appeared in a Miller Lite commercial in 1987 with legendary baseball personality Bob Uecker.
Tiriac is still involved in tennis as a player manager.
Worth: $1.1 billion (Forbes, 2017)
Unlike Tiriac, our next odd billionaire is most known for being a complete unknown.
It’s certainly common for rich people to be reclusive, but Ivan Chrenko takes it a step further. Slovakia’s first and only billionaire is basically an enigma.
In a profile of Chrenko earlier this year announcing he’d made the list of world’s billionaires, Forbes wrote: “[H]e does not communicate with the media about his wealth. Neither has he done so on this occasion. And, even the profile on Forbes of the Slovak-born businessman has no photo him.”
Alas, there is one photo of Chrenko on the Web, and it accompanies his incredibly curt bio on the website of HB Reavis, a real estate developer for which Chrenko is the majority owner and chairman: “Ivan Chrenko is a Co-founder of HB Reavis. He served as CEO of the HB Reavis Group from 1994 to October 2013.”
But it seems that unless you’re ready to make a hefty real estate deal, Chrenko is as good as a ghost.
We’ll file this under that urge to want something we cannot have.
Worth: $1.9 billion (Hurun Report, 2017)
China, the world’s most populous nation, has more female billionaires than any other country — six out of every 10 self-made women billionaires globally are from China.
“There can be no question anymore that China is the best place in the world to be a woman entrepreneur,” said Rupert Hoogewerf, founder of the Hurun Report, a research firm. “The question I am often asked is, ‘Why is China producing so many of the world’s most successful women in business?’ There is no Chinese in the Top 10 of the world’s self-made billionaire men, yet six of the top 10 world’s self-made women billionaires are from China.”
A good number of them are also millennials, including Wu Yan. They call her the “media and entertainment queen,” and the 36-year-old is also the youngest of China’s self-made billionaires.
That’s impressive enough, but what’s really crazy about Yan’s wealth is that she started her career as a journalist — notoriously a labor of love, low-paying career choice. Yan pivoted into entertainment and became chairwoman of tech giant Hakim Unique before it went public.
Hakim, a versatile and revered media company, produces television and movies, runs theme parks and theaters, creates video games, and also build smart cities.
Worth: $3.5 billion (Forbes, 2015) to $46.8 billion (Bloomberg, 2017)
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the man behind the world’s most frugal furniture brand is the world’s stingiest billionaire.
Ingvar Kamprad, who founded IKEA at the ripe old age of 17, is known to shun the high life at every turn. This self-made billionaire flies economy class and stays at budget hotels — where he’d rather replace a minibar soda himself than pay the marked-up hospitality price. He rides the subway and drives an old Volvo, and he’s even published several works detailing his frugality and how it coincides with the IKEA approach to business and interior design.
On a less savory note, Kamprad was also friends with infamous Swedish fascist Per Engdahl and a member of the New Swedish Movement, which he admitted in his book “Leading by Design: The IKEA Story” was the biggest mistake of his life.
Kamprad’s wealth is the subject of much debate. And in perhaps the oddest twist, Kamprad has challenged several estimates of his fortune as being far too high.
While most people inflate their wealth (and egos), he has publicly released documentation showing that business publications have overestimated his fortune through the years. Once thought of as the world’s richest man, Kamprad is worth somewhere between $3.5 billion and $46.8 billion, due to the complex ownership structure of IKEA.
Residence: New York
Worth: $2.2 billion (Forbes, 2017)
The self-proclaimed “Number One King of All Fun” is the epitome of an oddball billionaire, even if he’s also the epitome of obnoxious.
Stewart Rahr, who also likes to call himself Rah Rah and made his money in pharmaceuticals, might be best known for his email blasts to a lengthy list of fellow rich people, journalists, celebrities, and politicians in which he keeps everyone up to date on his lifestyle. He even includes photo attachments, sometimes of naked or nearly naked women or Rah Rah partying with various celebrities.
Over the span of 10 days in November 2012, Rahr was banned from the popular sushi chain Nobu and sent to a psychiatric clinic after allegedly pulling a gun on an elevator operator at Trump Tower in Manhattan. His antics are often Page Six fodder in the New York Post, and Forbes did a number on him in a 2013 profile.
It seems Rahr made most of his fortune as a drug prices speculator until the practice was banned in 2004.
But for all his R-rated behavior and idiosyncrasies, he’s also a well-known and generous donor to many causes.
Worth: $14.2 billion (Forbes, 2017)
Like several of the world’s youngest billionaires, Dustin Moskovitz came into his wealth via Facebook’s IPO in 2012. And like many of his peers, he’s gone to Burning Man — except he sees Burning Man as a chance for an off-course society to right the ship.
Moskovitz penned an incredibly self-aware essay on Medium in 2013 about his Burning Man exploits (he seems to be obsessed with anything having to do with breakfast, FYI).
By referring to himself as “the 1%” he likely turned off plenty of people, but he was inspired to spend some of his fortune to push society in a more communal direction. One year at the desert festival, he had occasion to make up — sort of — with the Winklevoss brothers (“There, we were all part of the same community," he writes. "We were always part of the same community.”).
Moskovitz says his Burning Man experiences led him to found Good Ventures, which supports malaria eradication and marriage equality, among other causes.
Worth: $20.7 billion (Forbes, 2017)
Most billionaires, save for the young heirs and tech founders, have children who will presumably end up with their parents’ vast fortunes, or some cash at least. Not so with Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft.
Instead, Allen’s money has gone to a billionaire’s lifestyle of fancy yachts and lavish parties while also contributing heaps of cash to charitable causes like medical research and environmental sustainability.
He also owns sports teams (Seattle Seahawks, Portland Trailblazers), and he might even have a solid gold toilet or two. We certainly would.
Worth: $3.9 billion (Forbes, 2017)
It’s true, God is a billionaire. And he’s also only 45.
God Nisanov made his money in real estate, and he does have a few odd developments to his credit. For instance, Nisanov and his partners own a giant wholesale food distribution center in Moscow that somehow resembles Paris, Madrid, Berlin, and Mexico City all at the same time, according to Forbes.
He also has an aquarium in Moscow, called Moskvarium, that is Europe’s largest and even allows visitors to swim with dolphins.
Not much else is known about God, which seems fitting for a man with that name.
Worth: $1.82 billion (Forbes, 2017)
Once dubbed “the homeless billionaire,” Nicolas Berggruen could be considered odd based on that title alone. He spent years without a permanent residence, living a nomadic yet ritzy life out of posh hotels and his private jet. But there’s so much more to this German-American dual citizen.
Berggruen has always had grand ideas about how society should operate, having penned at age 15 a constitution for a working utopian society. He is the son of renowned art collector Heinz Berggruen, a close friend of Picasso and a onetime lover of Freida Kahlo. He’s known to travel with only his phone and a few clothing items, leaving other clothes at his favorite hotels for his return visits. In 2016, he announced a $500 million grant for the Berggruen Institute think tank in Los Angeles.
He’s also somewhat obsessed with California as an economic and cultural powerhouse, having poured millions into the Think Long Committee that aims to repair the state’s broken governance system.
And he likes to throw pre-Oscars A-list parties at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont, which is actually the least odd thing Berggruen is known for.