For Trump, Fame Is Easier Than Fortune

February 23, 2004, 6:00 AM UTC
Donald Trump color illustration Feb 23 2004 Fortune magazine issue
Color illustration: Drew Friedman

He’s the star of NBC’s top-rated reality television show, The Apprentice. He’s currently erecting seven new skyscrapers, producing beauty pageants, and building three lavish new golf courses, one in Westchester, N.Y., one in New Jersey, and one south of L.A. He’s even filling the burning need for a new brand of bottled water with the just-out Trump Ice. And 17 years after releasing his bestselling The Art of the Deal (“the biggest-selling business book of all time,” if he does say so himself), Trump just secured a reported $5 million advance for a new book, How to Get Rich: Lessons from The Apprentice and Other Big Deals.

There’s just one question: How is Donald Trump—the businessman, not the TV star—doing these days? The answer seems to depend on which part of his empire you’re talking about.

Examine the performance of Trump‘s one publicly held company—the casino business—and it’s clear that taking your business cues from TheDonald is far more likely to lead to fame than to fortune. Once the major source of Trump‘s nearly billion-dollar wealth, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts has lost hundreds of millions in market value since going public in 1995. Trump‘s personal stake—he controls 56% of the company—is worth just $41 million, down from more than half a billion dollars in 1996. The humbled gambling company, whose marquee property is Atlantic City’s Taj Mahal, is so burdened with debt—$1.8 billion in all—that it’s draining cash. Trump himself admits that he’s considering restructuring the debt, perhaps by bringing in new investors, even if that meant he’d give up some control. He notes that “every institution loves me.”

Shareholders may be suffering, but as usual Trump has found a way to profit. The casino company, whose stock trades for about $2.50, compared with $34 in 1996, pays Trump an annual salary of $1.5 million. It picks up the tab for Trump‘s casino-related air travel on his fabled Boeing 727. It has licensed Trump‘s name. And, according to a new employment agreement disclosed in the company’s public filings, it awards him an annual bonus based on the company’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. That’s a good thing forTrump, considering that the $55 million interest on the casino company’s debt in last year’s third quarter rather unfortunately exceeded the company’s operating earnings of $45 million. (If the company has annual Ebitda of at least $270 million, Trump gets another $1.5 million, plus 5% of the amount by which Ebitda exceeds $270 million; the company hasn’t yet reported year-end 2003 results.)

“The problem with the casino company is that it’s got junk bond debt,” Trump says. “If it had regular debt, it’d be all right. Look, in New York I’m paying 3% on new mortgages today. In Atlantic City I’m paying 12%.”

But the Atlantic City properties have more problems than onerous mortgages. Even as his debt obligations have made it difficult for Trump to reinvest in Atlantic City, the competition has gotten fierce, particularly from the new Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, a 2,000-guest-room facility that is a joint venture of Boyd Gaming and MGM Mirage. “Borgata’s really hitting him hard right now,” says Bear Stearns debt analyst John Mulkey.

Trump vows that he’s going to spend more time on his gambling operations in the coming months, despite devoting upwards of six hours a week on The Apprentice. And besides, says Trump, the gambling concern (monogram ticker symbol: DJT) “has nothing to do with my real estate in New York.”

Though Trump‘s privately held real estate portfolio is notoriously hard to evaluate, he insists it’s thriving. He has numerous projects at or near completion, including an office tower at 40 Wall Street, Trump World Tower near the United Nations, and a massive project on New York’s West Side. In residential real estate in particular, Trump‘s name still commands a premium. “Donald builds some of the best projects in New York,” says Pamela Liebman, CEO of high-end real estate brokerage the Corcoran Group. “He maintains a lifestyle. He protects his name by making sure there’s a certain elegance to the buildings.”

Trump couldn’t agree more, especially about the lifestyle part. His Trump National Golf Course Los Angeles “will be better than Pebble Beach,” he says (three times). And he stresses that he gets paid “a lot” for each appearance on The Apprentice (George and Carolyn, his deputies on the show, do it gratis). Speaking of which, perhaps there is a solution to those debt-restructuring woes: Hand the project over to the lucky apprentice.

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