The Dollars and Sense of Suze Orman
How a waitress turned stockbroker comined the heart and the wallet to become America's favorite finacial guru
By Lynn Andriani -- Publishers Weekly, 2/24/2003
Suze Orman stands in the hallway outside her Manhattan apartment, waiting for the elevator to take PW downstairs. She explains how, when she remodeled her apartment a few years ago, she got permission from everyone on her floor to also remodel the shared hallway and the door to everyone's apartment. For a classy old building in East Midtown, it is a chic hallway. Each door is finished in what appears to be brushed steel. Soft lighting illuminates the walls; even the elevator door looks like the entryway to another apartment.
When the elevator arrives and the doors open, the operator beams and bellows, "Suze!" She responds, "Hello, my friend!" Hugs follow, one for the elevator man and one for PW. Everyone says goodbye, and the elevator whisks PW down to the lobby. "She is a beautiful lady, a very special, very kind woman," the elevator man tells us. Such a send-off sums up something about Suze Orman, the author and person, that perhaps holds a secret to her success: she is likable, generous and successful.
The popular author has just penned what she calls her "best book," a title that no doubt will soon grace the bestseller lists for a long run. Without ever having intended to be an author, Orman has become one of the bestselling nonfiction writers in America; she already lays claim to three consecutive PW bestsellers: The Road to Wealth, The Courage to Be Rich and The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom, along with a USA Today, Business Week and Wall Street Journal bestseller, You've Earned It, Don't Lose It. Her next book, The Laws of Money, The Lessons of Life, is due out from Free Press on February 25. Although not a departure in terms of content, the book promises to broaden Orman's range even further, thanks to a promotional campaign unlike anything she—or most authors, for that matter—has ever embarked upon.
Just about everyone who works with Orman comments on her unusual combination of authenticity and innovation. Free Press vice-president and editorial director Dominick V. Anfuso says Orman is "brimming with ideas.... She has more new ideas in an hour than I have in a week." Sandi Mendelson, president and COO of Hilsinger-Mendelson, Orman's PR firm, regards Orman as "genuine" and "an idea factory," commenting, "Suze has been very, very involved in the creation of what we have today."
The "what" Mendelson refers to is a multimillion dollar enterprise consisting of a book publishing program, a syndicated radio show that is televised weekly, a column in O magazine, two PBS pledge shows based on Orman's books, a Web site that attracts more than eight million readers each month, a monthly e-newsletter and more. Orman has savvily built a brand for herself since the publication of her first book, in 1995, all the while projecting a friendly, girl-next-door image that appeals to millions of Americans who are looking for financial advice with a friendly face.
Although Orman's creative promotional techniques are surely a big part of her books' success, it's her unique approach to personal finance that sets her apart from other personal finance experts spewing advice via books, radio, television and the Web. Orman's holistic outlook—it's not uncommon for her to refer to moral values when she's talking about getting rid of credit card debt, and in the index of her newest book, "inner strength" is sandwiched between "inflation" and "insurance"—has helped her become one of the nation's leading personal finance experts. Here is a woman who sees an undeviating link between money and emotion, who has built a solid backlist of books based, essentially, on behavioral economics. It sounds like a fancy term. But Suze Orman is the farthest thing from fancy.From Fried Chicken to Filet Mignon
Orman was born on Chicago's South Side in 1951. Her father ran a take-out chicken shack, where Orman worked part-time. She and her brothers worked odd jobs to bring in extra money as kids, knowing their parents had to stretch to make ends meet. Orman studied social work at the University of Illinois, Champaign, and in 1973, after three years of school, moved to Berkeley, Calif., with some friends, with $300 between them. She landed a job as a waitress at Berkeley's Buttercup Bakery and finished her degree. Always resourceful, Orman came up with ideas for expanding Buttercup Bakery, and after waitressing there for seven years, thought she could open her own restaurant. She asked her parents for the money to launch the business, but they didn't have it. However, good looks and charm were on Orman's side (along with a little luck). As she tells it, a longtime patron of the restaurant saw how sad Orman was, and after asking her, "What's wrong, Sunshine?" she explained her predicament, and he handed over a check for $50,000 so she could make her "dreams come true."
Elated, Orman ran to Merrill Lynch to invest the money. She immersed herself in learning about finance, plastering her bedroom walls with the newspaper's stock and options pages. Within four months the money was gone. Orman says her broker had been dishonest and swindled her. Knowing she'd never earn the money back waitressing, Orman decided to become a stockbroker. Merrill Lynch trained and hired her ("to fill their women's quota," she says). She started out earning $1,500 a month—"I thought I had died and gone to heaven"—and became a skilled stockbroker. "My clients made out like bandits," Orman recalls, "and I was propelled pretty quickly to become one of the top brokers." Orman learned she had a knack for listening to her clients' needs and, she says, found that telling them the truth often paid off, both literally and figuratively.
In 1983, Orman left Merrill Lynch to become a vice-president of investments at Prudential Bache Securities, where she stayed until 1987, when she resigned to start her own firm. Although profitable, the firm suffered a blow when Orman was deceived again, this time by one of her own employees, who stole Orman's computer programs and files, and her clients' financial records. "I was devastated," she remembers, but it taught her a lesson. Ever optimistic, Orman realized this episode in her life was an opportunity to learn the importance of recognizing lies. (She elaborates on this concept in The Laws of Money, The Lessons of Life, in the chapter "Truth Creates Money, Lies Destroy It.")
Throughout the '80s, Orman had been giving seminars on retirement planning. The seminars were popular, yet Orman insists, "I didn't do it to get their money. I did it so that... people would know what to do [when they retired]." Orman didn't know it then, but these retirement seminars she was giving in northern California would become the seed of her first book, You've Earned It, Don't Lose It, which would change her life.Birth of a Book Publishing Career
In 1993, Newmarket Press had recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Esther Margolis had built a solid, medium-sized publishing house and was seeking a personal finance author to add to her burgeoning nonfiction list. She found out about Suze Orman from an agent, Linda Mead, who told her Orman was definitely "promotable." Recalling their first meeting, Margolis sums up Orman: "She was a financial consultant but she was a caring person." Margolis bought the book—Orman says no other publisher wanted to touch a book on retirement written by a woman—and published it in 1995. "I thought Esther Margolis had lost it," says Orman. "I went back to California and I told my friends there was a woman in New York City who was willing to pay me $10,000 to write a book and publish and print it for me!"
Although it took about a year to establish Orman, You've Earned It was a triumph. Following a 24-city author tour, the book took off. Margolis got Orman onto Q2, a sister channel of the shopping channel QVC, and Orman wowed 'em, selling 300 copies in 20 minutes. "Sometimes the stars cooperate," Margolis says. Currently in its 28th printing, You've Earned It has about 750,000 copies in print in its combined hardcover, paper and audio formats. "The irony," Margolis adds, "was that for two years we tried to get Suze onto The Today Show and Oprah and kept getting turned down. Finally, within a month of each other, we had a call from both shows. After two years. But she'd already moved over to Crown. That's what happens."
Orman followed You've Earned It with The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom. The idea for this book came from a course, too, this one meant for women, to gain control of their finances. Orman was ready to publish the book with Newmarket, but a lawyer she met told her she could get much more from a larger house.
At this time, Orman hooked up with literary agent Amanda "Binky" Urban of International Creative Management and the two immediately hit it off. As Urban recollects, "I don't do a lot of how-to books. Money was not—is not—of paramount interest to me, in that respect. But Suze came in and she started to talk. She had such an authentic voice, and that's because she completely cares about what she is doing. She really wants to help people with money. She led me into that conversation the way I think she leads a lot of people into that conversation, which is, money is this crippling thing in a lot of people's lives. It's not the enabler that everybody dreams it to be. It is in fact the biggest problem they have. When she started to walk me through that, I just thought, she's really good."
Urban found a "really good" deal for Orman. Paying the author an $800,000 advance, Crown published The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom in April 1997. Orman was still getting used to her new status as an author. "I went to see Chip Gibson [then head of Crown]," she recalls. "I said, 'Chip, I don't know how to write. I'm a finance person, not an author. I maybe hit it lucky with You've Earned It, Don't Lose It, but you're about to put out a serious sum of money and I think you need to think twice about this.' "
The hardcover now has close to 2.2 million copies in print and was the #1 nonfiction bestseller on PW's 1998 hardcover list. Three Rivers published the paperback in 2000; it was among USA Today's top 10 business bestsellers for 2001 and has 570,000 copies in print. Running Press published a miniature hardcover edition of the book in 2001.
After The 9 Steps, Orman was recognized as an established personal finance author. Every two years from then on, she wrote another bestseller. She went to Riverhead for her third book, The Courage to Be Rich (1999). It sold 29,000 copies in less than an hour on QVC and currently has more than one million copies in print. Riverhead released it in paper in 2002. Orman's fourth book, The Road to Wealth (Riverhead, 2001) hit the New York Times bestseller list after just one week on sale and was among the top 15 nonfiction bestsellers on PW's 2001 hardcover list. Although Orman won't come out and say she thinks The Laws of Money will hit the bestseller list, her new publisher, Martha Levin of Free Press, is less demure. "I certainly believe she'll be a bestseller," she told PW.
A bestseller in America, at least. Although she's made minor inroads in some foreign territories, Orman is one of the few mega-selling authors who have not broken seriously into foreign markets. Her agent attributes this to a lack of time on Orman's part. Says Urban, "Anybody can tell you, to really take off in a foreign territory, you've got to go and promote and really show your face," she says, adding, "There are certain language barriers, too." Orman has published some books in South Africa and plans to become more visible in other English-language markets, including Australia, the U.K. and Asia.Orman's Books: The How and Why
Flip through any one of Orman's books, and you'll notice certain words and phrases start to reappear, such as "life lesson"; "power"; "trust"; "right for you"; "who you are"; "be honest" and "peace of mind." Watch a few minutes of her television show, and you'll hear the same. Levin calls Orman's trademark blend of money talk and emotional counseling "financial self-help." Says Orman's editor, Leslie Meredith, "She gives the nuts-and-bolts information, but she gives a way of thinking about it that helps you get away from whatever trouble you're in, see the big picture and see a way through it." Orman's approach is one-of-a-kind, and it seems to be what captivates her readers and keeps them coming back.
Her willingness to pinpoint human emotion and link it to people's finances is Orman's principal strength. Before Orman started writing books, financial guides were straightforward manuals about investing and getting out of debt. "She really changed how people feel about their money," says PR exec Mendelson. "There's an emotional side to how you deal with your money, and that was never really talked about before Suze." Orman's prose in her books isn't much different from the words she uses when speaking to a crowd. She engages readers, uses simple words and concepts, fills her books with plenty of examples of everyday folk and cuts to the heart of why people want money, always reminding them, "money has no power of its own." Books for a Better Life, an awards program honoring "self-improvement" authors, established the Suze Orman First Book Award in 2002 to honor first-time authors of self-improvement books. Earlier this year, the organization inducted Orman into its Hall of Fame.Innovation: Moving Beyond Books
The Orman success formula seems contingent on two factors. The first is her holistic slant on finance. The second rides on her wide-ranging promotional strategies. A consummate self-promoter, Orman is acutely aware of her audience's needs and wants, and has found numerous venues to sell herself to her fans.
A PBS special based on The 9 Steps, which Orman wrote, co-produced and hosted, helped the book take off. Since that first special ran, in 1998, Orman has created two other specials for PBS; a third, based on her new book, will run in March. Each is for sale on video. Orman's PBS specials are among the most lucrative fund-raisers in the history of public television. They typically raise $30,000 in their first showings, with each rerun harvesting $10,000 to $15,000. Compared with PBS mainstays like Ken Burns's The Civil War (which, on a recent weekend marathon, attracted $16,515), Orman's got gold.
In addition to her PBS gigs, Orman also regularly appears on QVC. Her shows run at least three days a month and are broadcast numerous times each day. Then there's The Suze Orman Show, televised every Saturday and Sunday on CNBC, on which Orman fields calls from people around the country, listening to their woes and offering advice.
With such a strong presence on television, it was natural for Orman to expand into lecturing. Carol Bruckner of ICM handles Orman's lectures and estimates Orman gives more than 30 a year. The author speaks to students, corporations, consumer groups, women's organizations, philanthropists, even dental associations. Bruckner says Orman's fee is "reasonable." One source told PW they spent upwards of $35,000 to have Orman speak to their association.
It's no secret that Orman appeals to many in financial trouble, and in 1998 the research firm Trac Media characterized Orman's audience as downscale, relatively uneducated women aged 18 to 49; ironically, perhaps those least able to afford the expensive book packages she sells on QVC, a practice that some other financial advisors have criticized. But Orman disagrees that the poor constitute her core readership, saying, "Every single person in the world deals with money. I've learned it doesn't matter how much money you have. You have the same fears, the same paranoias and you make the same mistakes as somebody who has none." According to Orman, her audience is "rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Spanish, men, women."
"She knows her market cold," says her publicist Mendelson, "and she has an amazing instinct for the energy of the way people are thinking and feeling." With the average American household shouldering $8,054 in credit card debt in 2002, there appears to be a ready audience for Orman's advice. Orman puts it this way: "I'm there to answer your questions and to get you rich, not to make me richer."Behind the Scenes of the Orman Enterprise
Working with a PR firm like Singer-Mendelson is key for an author like Orman. The firm "manages" all of Orman's different entities, including the promotional campaign behind The Laws of Money, The Lessons of Life.
And what a promotional campaign it is. Sponsored by the online loan marketplace LendingTree.com, SelectQuote insurance services, Free Press and CNBC, it includes a 21-city bus tour (in a red bus that looks much like the book itself); appearances on local television and radio talk shows; and outdoor, transit, television and print ads. United Airlines will run a 30-second spot for the book on its flights, and the book is an alternate selection of six different book clubs. A Laws of Money hotline has been set up (1-800-GET-SUZE) for readers and booksellers to learn where Orman's going to be when.
Orman was the force behind many of these promotional ideas. Says publisher Levin, "She brings so much to the table, more than any other author I've ever worked with. Yes, it's financial backing. But this bus is such a great idea, so it's creative financial backing." Not every author can get an outside company—one that isn't immediately connected with the author's book—to take out a full-page, four-color ad in O. Nor can every author get an outside company to help finance a cross-country bus tour. Suzanne Donahue, v-p and associate publisher of Free Press, says the publisher is spending "a significant six-figure sum on the book," but the press's financial commitment is being supplemented with funding from the tour's other sponsors and Orman herself. Orman explains how she got LendingTree.com to pay for much of the campaign: "They're doing it simply to have their name associated with this book. There's no economic arrangement between us. They don't pay me anything, I don't pay them anything." But somehow, everyone wins.She Works Hard, But Not for the Money?
Despite the millions her books have brought her, "I don't do this for money anymore,." Orman tells PW, leaning back on her plush sofa, popping a fig into her mouth. "The money doesn't fascinate me. Everybody probably thinks money's my whole life. My apartment is 900 square feet. I could have bought a $10-million place on Park Avenue, but what for? I am not fascinated by what money can buy, but I am fascinated by money and by people." And it seems millions of Americans are fascinated by Suze Orman.