How Arnold Schwarzenegger Became A Billionaire

   2024-05-30 04:05

The movie star has played many roles in his 76 years: bodybuilder. Box office star. Bureaucrat. And now billionaire.

By Jemima McEvoy, Forbes Staff


There aren’t many movies as action packed as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s actual life. Born into a poor family in the tiny Austrian village of Thal (pop: 2,500), where he later discovered his father had been a member of the Nazi party, The Terminator and Kindergarten Cop star used his muscles and charm to be crowned Mr. Universe four times then conquer Hollywood and win California’s top political office. Along the way he’s spun his fame into fortune. The 76-year-old is now worth $1 billion, according to Forbes’ estimates.

The Hollywood actor is the latest in a wave of entertainers to successfully capitalize on their stardom. On its 2024 World Billionaires List, Forbes identified 14 celebrities who cashed in their celebrity for ten figure fortunes, including singer Taylor Swift, 34, Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, 77, and comedian Jerry Seinfeld, 70. Schwarzenegger is the second actor to join the ranks after Tyler Perry, 54, who is best known for his “Madea” franchise and is worth an estimated $1.4 billion. But Schwarzenegger took a different path to riches, one that has come primarily from smart investing, not just acting.



Schwarzenegger, who moved to the U.S. in 1968 and initially struggled to secure roles because of his thick accent, has churned out around 50 films, which made $5.5 billion at the box office. He pocketed roughly $500 million from his movies, according to Forbes estimates, in part thanks to the way he structured his deals. When studio executives hesitated to make his first comedy Twins, which also starred Danny Devito, Schwarzenegger agreed to forgo a salary, pocketing nearly 20% of gross receipts instead. The 1988 movie became a blockbuster and he ultimately netted over $35 million, way more than he would have gotten upfront. “It became such a historic deal that the studio would never, ever make that deal again,” Schwarzenegger said in a 2016 interview.

He’s also made millions more from product endorsements and commercials like his “Agent State Farm” cameo at the 2024 Super Bowl. But, according to Forbes estimates, about 65% of all his entertainment earnings go to taxes and fees, like paying his agent, manager, lawyer and more, leaving him with closer to $170 million after tax. By his own estimate, he gave up another $200 million in Hollywood income to serve as California’s governor from 2003 to 2011.

Those who know him best point out one of the biggest reasons for his financial success: Schwarzenegger has always had a healthy appetite for risk. “I wanted big investments that were interesting, creative and different,” the billionaire wrote in his book, Total Recall. “Conservative bets – the kind that would generate 4 percent a year, say – didn’t interest me.”

This risk-taking paid off for him as an investor, but may have backfired in his personal life. Schwarzenegger was mentioned last month in former President Donald Trump’s hush money trial (which the jury is now deliberating) by former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, who said that he had a similar “catch and kill” arrangement with Schwarzenegger when he was running for governor as he had with Trump’s team. Pecker claimed that as many as 40 women approached American Media Inc, the then owner of the National Enquirer, with claims about the candidate. Pecker added that he shelled out “hundreds of thousands” of dollars to keep the stories out of the National Enquirer on behalf of Schwarzenegger, who was at one point paid $1 million a year by American Media to promote its fitness magazines. Representatives for the actor did not respond to Forbes request for comment at the time of publication. (Schwarzenegger did admit in a 2023 Netflix documentary series about his life that his behavior was “wrong”; The Los Angeles Times first reported numerous allegations of groping and sexual harassment against the actor in 2003).

His divorce from former newscaster and Kennedy heir Maria Shriver was finalized in 2021. While the terms of the divorce were not made public, Forbes assumes the pair didn’t have a prenup and split their assets 50/50, per California law. Had they drawn up a premarital agreement, Schwarzenegger might be worth nearly double what he is today.


THE $200 MILLION MAN

One of the highest paid and most productive Hollywood stars of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger has made 13 films surpassing $200 million in box office earnings over three decades.


F

rom the outset, Schwarzenegger put his cash to work. Soon after arriving in California in 1968, he used his bodybuilding, along with extra income from his side hustles – laying bricks with friend and fellow bodybuilder Franco Columbo, and a mail-order business selling fitness pamphlets – to start buying up apartment buildings in Santa Monica. He claims he was a millionaire before getting any major movie roles in the 1970s.

Since then, Schwarzenegger pumped his money into commercial real estate, private equity and stocks. He is the founding client of Main Street Advisors, which his longtime financial advisor Paul Wachter opened up in 1997 with the sole purpose of helping the movie star handle his money. (The firm has since expanded to advise such celebrities as LeBron James and Billie Eilish).

Among his bigger real estate investments: Schwarzenegger redeveloped an entire Santa Monica block that he then sold off in 2006. He bought 812 Main St., a 21,600 commercial building in prime Venice Beach for roughly $12 million in the 1980s that he unloaded in 2013 for at least triple that sum. He previously owned a significant stake in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Beverly Hills plus he’s a longtime investor in Easton Town Center outside Columbus. The mall, whose development was spearheaded by the embattled Victoria Secret billionaire Les Wexner, is one of the top performing in the country. Schwarzenegger described Wexner as one of his “teachers” in a 2001 speech, and the retail billionaire reportedly hosted a $2,500-per-head fundraiser for Schwarzenegger at his Ohio home in 2004.

Another key mentor of his: Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, who the actor has described as “the greatest investor ever.” The pair met in the late 1990s and Buffett later served as an economic advisor on Schwarzenegger’s campaign. More recently, in a 2021 interview with the New York Times, Schwarzenegger cited the “Oracle of Omaha” as the reason why he wouldn’t invest in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies: “I am like Warren Buffett. I don’t invest in things I don’t understand.”

Instead, Schwarzenegger invested in some of America’s best known brands. He bet on Starbucks in the 1990s and still owns shares in the coffee empire. He was an investor in Google’s Series A round in 1999, sold off shares at some point and then bought some back more recently. Other stocks in which he’s had stakes at some point are Beyond Meat, AMC and the YES Network.

One of the more “creative” investments that he and Wachter masterminded was Schwarzenegger’s famous purchase of a $130 million Boeing 747 that he then leased back to Singapore Airlines. The actor put down around $10 million upfront. Wachter says they made money on the deal (he didn’t say how much) but admits it wasn’t the “huge hit” they anticipated, in part due to the decline in airline values after the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001.

Perhaps his smartest bet was buying a minority stake in $718 billion (assets) Dimensional Fund Advisors, founded by fellow billionaire David Booth, in 1996. Wachter’s former employer was at the time an investor in the investment firm, which was then managing around $12 billion in assets, and wanted to sell. Schwarzenegger was quickly convinced by Booth’s connections to one of his idols, the late economist Milton Friedman, who he called his “intellectual idol”: Booth had been one of Friedman’s students at the University of Chicago.

Schwarzenegger initially bought just under 5% of the firm’s equity for an undisclosed sum, but “he has not ever sold one share and he never would,” says Wachter, who described DFA as one of the “most incredible” investments he’s ever seen. That initial stake is now worth nearly $500 million, according to Forbes estimates. (Wachter adds the caveat that Schwarzenegger may sell some if the company ever goes public.)

Wachter recalls when Schwarzenegger was governor and he had to manage his client’s investments fully to avoid any conflicts of interest. They weren’t supposed to talk about his portfolio but after the market crashed in 2009 he turned to Wachter at a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game and said “you better not be selling anything,” Wachter recalls. “He’s that guy… He knows this is not the time to sell. And of course, things came roaring back after the financial crisis so he was right.”

In addition to his real estate and equity investments, Schwarzenegger continues to own several businesses: film and production company Oak Productions, Fitness Publications Inc and film and trademarking holding venture Pumping Iron America. His wide ranging investment portfolio also includes the Arnold Sports Festival, a three-day long bodybuilding and strength convention that takes place in Columbus, as well as in Madrid, the UK, Brazil and South Africa. He also owns an estimated $40 million in personal real estate, including a ski getaway in Sun Valley, Idaho and a seven-bedroom mansion in Brentwood, California.


Arnold Schwarzenegger

Career Highlights

1967

Schwarzenegger wins Mr. Universe for the first of four times — his first title was in the “Amateur” competition but he won the “Professional” title the next year.

1970

Schwarzenegger films his first movie: “Hercules in New York.” His lines were dubbed over by another actor in the original version.

1984

Schwarzenegger gets his breakout role in James Cameron’s “The Terminator.” He was paid $750,000 for the blockbuster.

1998

Schwarzenegger releases “Twins,” his most profitable film. The comedy grossed more than $215 million globally at the box office.

2003

Schwarzenegger is elected California governor after former governor Gray Davis’ recall. The actor served two terms as a Republican.

2021

Schwarzenegger finalizes divorce from Maria Shriver after 35 years of marriage. They have four children together: Katherine (34) Christina (32) Patrick (30) and Christopher (26).

2023

Schwarzenegger releases “FUBAR,” his first ever starring role in a live-action TV series on Netflix.


Image credits (top to bottom): Pictorial Parade/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images; Universal Pictures/Newscom; Carlo Allegri/Getty Images; Jason Merritt/FilmMagic/Getty Images; Tommaso Boddi/Netflix/Getty Images.



N

ot every investment was a winner. In 1991, Schwarzenegger teamed up with Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone to invest in Planet Hollywood. The themed restaurant chain peaked at a valuation of more than $3 billion in 1996 only to end up in bankruptcy three years later. Though he got nowhere near the $120 million his stock was once worth on paper, Schwarzenegger, for his part, ended up getting out largely unscathed. At the advice of Wachter, he spent two years negotiating his ownership stake to have significant “safeguards” when he decided to invest. His main saving grace was that he was able to sell stock earlier than other investors, according to Wachter, who claims Schwarzenegger sold enough that he made “significant” money on his initial investment.

Key to the actor’s success has been his relentless work ethic. During his time as governor, his staffers were not allowed to use the word “tired,” according to Margita Thomson, his former press secretary. Schwarzenegger called it “the T-word.” “He’s constantly driven day to day. Like there’s 24 hours in the day, buckle up buttercup. Work hard and be disciplined… It’s just who he was,” says Thomson.

Even now, the actor, who earlier this month revealed he’s had a pacemaker fitted following multiple heart surgeries, continues to keep a full schedule. Last year he released two shows on the streaming platform Netflix: “Arnold,” a three-part documentary of his life, and “FUBAR,” his first-ever starring role in a live-action TV series, which has been renewed for a second season. When that shooting wraps, he’s set to film a Christmas comedy. He also publishes a free daily newsletter to around 800,000 subscribers and has 20,000 members who pay $99 a year for his paid fitness app, The Pump.

“I think he might be the world’s busiest 76 year old,” says Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff Daniel Ketchell, who has worked with him since he was governor. According to Ketchell, Schwarzenegger begins most days at 5 a.m. when he wakes up to feed his animals including three dogs, a miniature horse, a donkey and a pig. He then checks his iPad for urgent emails and works out before starting his day. Ketchell says it’s not uncommon for him to get a Facetime from Schwarzenegger at 6 a.m. (he doesn’t mind as he’s an early riser also) or on Sunday evenings after “60 Minutes” airs.

Others say getting to him has gotten nearly impossible. “He has layers of people between the world and him,” says Steve Algermissen, the executive director of Cushman & Wakefield’s Los Angeles office. Forbes too was unable to get an interview with him through his representatives despite multiple requests for comment. His financial advisor Wachter answered questions but declined to comment on his client’s net worth.

NOTE: This is an expanded version of the story that appeared in the April/May 2024 issue of Forbes Magazine.

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