When Suze Orman grew up on the rough-and-tumble South Side of Chicago, she drew strength from a family credo: “An Orman never gives up.”
In every phase of her life and career, Orman has personified true grit. Perseverance is the quality that, more than anything else, has enabled her to become the most successful personal-finance guru in America, build a multiplatform brand for herself and achieve the elusive quality of longevity.
Call Orman’s strength good old-fashioned tenacity or the will to win. Whatever you want to label that quality, it has enabled her to stay atop the heap when it comes to the multitudes of pundits who offer personal-finance advice to “the little guy” on Main Street. She has flourished as a dedicated entrepreneur, a popular figure on television and a thoroughly inspiring teacher to millions of her fans.
But Orman prefers to view her accomplishments in a way that doesn’t involve money or fame. She believes that she has achieved her success because she has an unflagging self-belief, and this gives her the inner strength to fend off her critics as well. Orman views the concept of success as something everyone can enjoy, regardless of bank account or status in society.
“Success comes when you can look in the mirror and you like what’s looking back,” Orman says. “You’re proud of what you’ve created. You’re proud of what you’re doing, even if it doesn’t give you a financial reward and nobody buys it. You’re proud of yourself.”
It’s hardly a coincidence that one of her biggest heroes is none other than Oprah Winfrey, whom Orman admires for her “tremendous sense of humanity.” Orman, with her strong but soothing style of communicating financial ideas, does for her fans’ financial needs what Winfrey offers people to make better choices about their relationships. Orman learned from the best, clearly, because she sometimes sounds just like Winfrey.
“True success is a smile,” Orman says philosophically. “It’s a smile in your heart because you feel like your life is complete. Then you’re successful. It’s not gauged by how much money you have. Look at Bernie Madoff. He was seriously considered a success by so many—even when he was hurting so many.”
If you think that Orman is little more than a trader in shopworn platitudes, you’d be selling her short and diminishing the acumen of her audience. By maintaining her credibility over the years and shrewdly diversifying her methods of communication, Suze has assembled a potent Orman Inc.
Her cable television program The Suze Orman Show has been one of CNBC’s highest-rated offerings of the decade. She has penned nine consecutive New York Times best-sellers, while writing, co-producing and hosting seven Public Broadcasting Service specials based on her popular books. The PBS shows have garnered two Emmys and are typically highly successful fundraising vehicles. Orman has become a fixture in popular culture as well. She has appeared as a guest on TV shows ranging from Piers Morgan’s prime-time chat show to Bill Maher’s popular program on HBO. In a sure sign that Orman has become an icon, Saturday Night Live has spoofed her five times, lampooning her cheerfulness and effervescence.
What the satirists—and many of her critics—miss, however, is the essence of what makes her so successful. Strangers swear by Orman’s advice, and not necessarily because she is the “smartest” financial expert on the tube. But she is the one they invariably turn to for counsel because they trust her to have their backs. They sense that she cares about them. They believe that Orman is more than a financial planner or a broker you go to see in an office. She is a loyal friend who appears in their living rooms. Orman is neither a Pollyanna nor a doomsayer. She is a pragmatist. She tells people the truth, what they need to hear but not always what they want to hear. In an era when flimflam artists abound, people respect Orman, and more important, they know that she is on their side.
I acquired an appreciation for this trait when I was about to leave Orman’s home after our two-hour conversation on a frigid day in January. She eyed me with genuine concern as I was packing up my stuff and putting on my gloves and scarf.
“Don’t you have a hat?” she asked me. “Are you going to be warm enough? I hope you don’t have far to go now.”
Intro to Suze Orman
You might say I got a class in Suze Orman 101 the Friday morning when I stopped by her spacious apartment in midtown Manhattan to find out what makes her tick.
When she is in New York, she lives in one of those buildings where, once upon a time, you’d have expected to find Holly Golightly hanging out, with its high ceilings, airplane-hangar lobby and location within spitting distance of Central Park.
It’s the kind of pad where the best of the best reside. Orman’s apartment building is not lavish or huge, mind you. But the neighborhood is where the cream of the city lives. As I waited in the lobby to be admitted to Orman’s sanctuary, I spied a well-coiffed real estate agent escorting a wealthy potential client through the lobby. “This looks like a nice building,” the impressed client said. “Oh, it is, it is,” the saleswoman gushed. I smiled politely, looking down at my black shoes that needed a shine, thinking, What am I doing here?
I doubt that Suze Orman ever has those kinds of thoughts anymore about herself. She knows exactly what she is doing and why and for whom. Orman has an absolute sense of belonging in her society. She moves easily and naturally from her highly popular TV show on CNBC to an appearance on The View.
In person, Orman is a lot like she is on the tube. She was intense but not intimidating. She exudes confidence and a sense of purpose. It would be hard to imagine Orman sitting around, channel-surfing. She doesn’t waste time. Every minute is accounted for.
She speaks animatedly. If you were transcribing her speech, you’d fight yourself to refrain from putting one word in every sentence in italics. She speaks quickly and can’t wait to get the next thought out of her mouth. Clearly, this woman, 60, has conviction in what she says, underlining how she has become the most popular and respected guru in the crowded personal-finance arena. Part cheerleader, part drill sergeant, Orman is a natural leader. She likes to have the responsibility of offering strangers advice—and she expects to be listened to.
Yet Orman is disarmingly unpretentious. “I don’t use a teleprompter,” she says in more of a statement-of-fact tone than a boast. “I’m simply me. Ninety-nine percent of the on-air talent… they are scripted. When I look at the camera, it’s a black hole. I have nothing prepared, no pre-arrangements. I don’t like to know what the questions are in advance. People can feel that I’m authentic.”
The importance she places on authenticity is why she doesn’t act like a multimillionaire and talk down to people. Her apartment is spacious, though anything but ostentatious, appearing quite comfortable and lived in, and certainly conducive to the needs of a cheerful workaholic. “I watch CNBC 24 hours a day,” Orman tells me with a laugh.
When I walk in, she directs me straight to the kitchen table, where I sip steaming-hot coffee and she enjoys a cup of tea. Orman dresses informally for comfort, wearing blue jeans.
I got a strong measure for Orman when she told me a story that underscores her philosophy of taking care of yourself and not relying on anybody else. Once, one of her fans told her that his daughter had run up thousands of dollars in debts and he was at his wits’ end on how to help the kid. He plaintively asked Orman whether he should bail her out of the jam or not.
NO!, Orman emphatically told the man. “Let her know what it’s like to fail! What makes you a big success is if you have experienced failure early in your life. If you could have little failures, little ones, they make you humble.”
That kind of up-from-the-bootstraps self-reliance comes honestly to Orman. To look at her is to see a self-assured finance pro who enjoys life’s luxuries and mingles with the rich and famous around the world. But it wasn’t always like this, not by a long shot.
She pulled herself—by herself—out of a Chicago upbringing on the other side of the tracks. Her father “started out as a chicken-plucker” with an outfit called Michigan Poultry. “He’d kill it and pluck it—and you’d take it,” she recalls.
Eventually her father ran a 400-square-foot takeout shack called Chicken a Go-Go (yes, this was indeed the Swinging Sixties!). In a harrowing on-the-job fire, he suffered third-degree burns and soon contracted emphysema. Everyone in the family, including Orman’s mother and two brothers, worked at the restaurant already (Suze’s mom did so on the weekends; during the week she was a secretary). Now, young Suze was expected to chip in and do her part as well. “Mommy and Daddy were like, ‘How are we going to do this? Suze, you’re going to work.’ I was 13.” Orman started working as a counter girl at a delicatessen.
Her father’s example “gave me the courage to ‘go for it,’ ” Orman recalls. Despite his physical pain and struggles, she says, “My father got up every single morning and went to work. He told me: An Orman never gives up.”
Orman pauses for a moment to reflect on her dad. He never was able to attain the American dream. “He, essentially, in his mind, died a failure,” she says at last.
Orman grows thoughtful on the subject of her youth. It clearly has left emotional scars. She loves her parents and appreciates the work ethic they imparted to her. But it’s also just as clear that she relishes having transcended her humble roots on the South Side of Chicago.
“I drive by my old neighborhood,” she says. “And I can’t believe how far I’ve come.”
Only when she was an adult did Orman learn that her mother had been an Avon lady, on top of her other jobs, to help out.
When Orman asked her mother why she had taken on the Avon work, the answer was bracing: “Because I didn’t want your daddy to know he wasn’t bringing enough money in.” Did Orman’s father ever learn that his wife was working a third job? “Not to my knowledge” she says.
Those tough conditions hardened Orman, to a degree, and taught her a valuable lesson, which she clearly hasn’t forgotten. While she accepts that money can’t buy happiness, she recognizes the flip side of that coin. “A lack of money sure will make you miserable,”
“When you’re raised with a work ethic like my family’s, and watching your father, against all odds, going to work, you learn,” she says. “How bad do you want something? Rather than turning my back on the battlefield of problems, I became a warrior and walked into it.”
But not everyone would have adopted the warrior way growing up under those circumstances. I ask her why she was able to summon up the resolve to “never give up.”
It’s the only time I saw Orman flummoxed during our two-hour conversation. “I don’t know why,” she says soulfully. “To this day, I don’t know why.”
The Queen of Customer Service
Eventually, the 22-year-old Orman moved to Berkeley, Calif., where she became a waitress at the Buttercup Bakery. Always someone to benefit from every experience, she learned the rudiments of customer service in that modest job for seven years.
“I loved that job,” she says, smiling broadly. She regarded the customers as her friends, and before too long, they felt the same way about the cheerful waitress with the friendly Chicago accent. “They always walked away with a smile,” she says.
Orman’s mentor was an older waitress named Helen, who chain-smoked cigarettes and sported a beehive hairstyle. “I loved Helen more than life itself,” Orman says. When asked what made Helen so special to her, Orman doesn’t hesitate: “It was her kindness to people. She had joy in her eyes and in her heart.”
By the early 1980s, America was in the grip of stock market frenzy. Millions of investors became equity investors. Against this backdrop, Orman became intrigued by the machinations of Wall Street, too, and talked her way into a job as a broker in the Bay Area with Merrill Lynch (for the full story, including a hilarious description of her interview outfit, go to SUCCESS.com). Eventually, Orman gravitated to Prudential-Bache Securities before going out on her own.
When you get down to it, there’s no secret sauce to account for her success. She established the iconic Orman brand by working her tail off. Orman never had a master blueprint. She simply followed her interests and her convictions. Orman did whatever she could to help people. Like when she worked as a waitress, the key is to make people want to come back again and again.
Even three decades after entering the investment business, Orman continues to have a thirst for knowledge and information. It all adds up to helping her do a better job of reaching her audience.
Orman’s passion for trying to help people improve their lives keeps her excited and purposeful. She has a challenging job. The investment industry can change on a dime, as can the fragile state of investor psychology. Orman makes sense of it all. As she sees it, she has a calling and not merely a job. People overspend and they don’t save what they need, and Orman feels a sense of urgency to help them stop endangering themselves.
Sometimes, Though, Blinders Are Best
By following the watchwords of never giving up, she has always found the strength and determination to take risks, overcome long odds, lift herself off the canvas and, especially, block out the barbs of critics.
“The key to success is putting on blinders,” she says.
Orman has been dealing with critics for much of her career. She prefers not to think too much about them most of the time. She is either too busy or too happy to let them get her down, and she grudgingly accepts the fact that slights and put-downs must inevitably be a byproduct of becoming famous and successful.
Orman can be audacious and she exudes self-confidence. But she is not antagonistic, nor is she abusive or obnoxious. Some suspect that much of the criticism that gets hurled at her is based on professional jealousy. Some of Orman’s critics chalk up her fame to hype. It almost seems like they get their kicks from pulling at her cape because they know they can’t match her successes.
Orman has been roundly criticized for the prepaid debit card she unveiled early this year: “The Approved Card from Suze Orman”—and yes, the full title is printed across the top of the card’s purple plastic. People aren’t required to have a bank account to own one. They can purchase them just as they buy GreenDot’s or other companies’ prepaid Visa and MasterCards. Orman’s card doesn’t charge for every time it’s used as some of its competitors do. She is working with one of the major credit agencies to help her card owners build credit status over a period of 18 months. And she’s banking on the notion that the purchase fee for her card is merely $3, which is $1.95 less than the fee for GreenDot.
The New York Times asked of her fans: “Would they trust her advice, given that she was building a product to compete with the banks and credit cards that she often criticizes? The Times also chided Orman for mentioning the card twice in her column in O, The Oprah Winfrey Magazine, in what the writer suggested smacked of self-promotion.
“I did tell you I was not going to talk about the card on my CNBC show,” The Times quoted Orman as saying. “I will respect the editorial rules of CNBC. But of course, I am going to talk about this card anywhere and everywhere I can!”
“Suze’s ‘Approved’ card is an also-ran financial product that offers limited benefits to a small subset of the population,” Kathy Kristof wrote on CBS MoneyWatch. “Most people could do better—much better—elsewhere. The only reason the card is worth talking about is because Suze is the queen of hype, so high-profile and vehement about her financial advice that she’s inspired a series of Saturday Night Live spoofs.”
Orman says she tries to shrug off the flak. She sees the card as a continuation of the work she can do for her audience. “I’m so proud now of my prepaid card,” she says. “It only validates it more that I did the right thing because of how much negativity there is out there.”
When asked whether she thought some of the naysayers might be acting out of jealousy toward her, she fires back: “Not jealousy. But they do not have the foresight to create a new system…. People think, ‘Let someone else do it.’ They’re afraid they’ll create a controversy.”
Orman tries hard not to fall into the trap of letting her foes wipe the smile off her face. Her mantra is to keep your eye on the ball. In her case, this involves her quest to do and say things intended to arm investors with information.
“In life, it’s easier to do nothing and settle for the status quo,” Orman says. “You say, ‘I’m making enough money, and everything’s so easy now.’ It is not easy to go and try to forge new ground when that ground is already so firmly established.
“I could’ve made more money by saying, ‘buy this’ and ‘buy that,’” she continues, waving aside the critics. “You have never seen me on my own show, or on any website, selling a mug, a baseball cap with my name on it or a T-shirt saying, ‘You are approved!’ People want those things but they don’t need them. I am not about to create them just to make money. The Suze Orman brand is so far above that.”
Still, critics continue to rake her over the coals. She has gotten used to it, but it’s never easy to accept.
“I’ve always stood up to incredible criticism over my entire career,” she says. “Truth always remains when everything else disappears. I also have this belief to wish others well, no matter what they say about me. They can say anything they want about me. Success comes when you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
Cracks in the Armor
Journalists love to discover people who are on the way up and champion their causes. But once the media build them up, there is nothing left to do but to tear them down. It can be a maddening process when you are the one who is being ripped. No matter how strong you think you are, the pressure and stress can make you feel like fighting back sometimes. Orman is no different.
“In 1999, I wrote a book, The Courage to be Rich, and said the three internal obstacles to wealth are fear, shame and anger,” she says. “As I started to experience magazine writers writing 100 percent lies about me, I would get afraid. I was so ashamed about what they were writing… and then I said, ‘Oh my God!’ I was just setting myself for anger.
“Barbara Walters once said to me, ‘Suze, don’t read the newspapers!’ ” But Orman does. And as if the traditional print and broadcast media didn’t weigh in enough, celebrities like Orman have additional headaches in the digital age. “Now, it’s Twitter and Facebook, too,” she says.
Orman concedes that the pressure of facing a barrage of criticism does get to her on occasion: “I do make mistakes and go on attacks. A Gemini is very quick to act. I do respond sometimes in a way when I should not have responded. Whenever that happens, it’s a serious mistake that I learn from.”
Orman delivers this confession without a trace of anxiety. It’s as if she has accepted that she goofed, momentarily, and now it’s time for her to move on to the next challenge, and inevitably, to the next pack of bloggers or others who will try to knock her down. Orman doesn’t dwell for long on defeats or disappointments. Why should she? She knows inwardly that she has too much going on in her life—and much more important, too much to look forward to—to get bogged down by what someone looking for an argument wrote about her. She advises, “You have to live your life by following this quote: ‘The elephant keeps walking as the dogs keep barking.’ You have to know in your heart you’re doing what’s right in the bigger picture.”
Read our SUCCESS.com exclusive on how Suze went from Buttercup Cafe waitress to financial mogul-- and how dressing for success got her there!