B. Wayne Hughes: the richest man in Kentucky

B. Wayne Hughes: the richest man in Kentucky (photo courtesy of Forbes)

If you walked down an average street in Louisville it’s doubtful most people you meet would have any idea whom Kentucky’s richest resident is.

I sure didn’t know. I might’ve guessed a member of the Brown family, or someone like them. Old money, going back generations, that kind of thing.

I would almost certainly not have thought of B. Wayne Hughes. But apparently octogenarian Hughes, valued at $2.5 billion, is our King Midas, according to Forbes.

I only learned about Hughes at all because of a new interactive map from the real estate website Movoto, that shows the richest person in each state.

All this raises an obvious question: Who is this guy? And how come he’s so under the radar? Aren’t billionaires supposed to act like Scrooge McDuck, and swim in pools filled with gold?

Apparently that’s not Hughes’s style. He’s so publicity averse he almost never does interviews, and asked Forbes to remove him from its various lists of rich people. They didn’t.

Here’s how he got so rich: public storage. Specifically, he founded the company Public Storage. He built it slowly, one unit at a time, and only started the company when he was already close to 40 years old, after a middling career. So he built his wealth in a useful, albeit unassuming way, and when it went public, boom, he was richer than god.

But guys who own boxes for people to put their boxes in tend to not be media darlings. Which seems to suit Hughes fine.

He lives in a three bedroom farmhouse in Lexington. OK, he’s salt of the earth, sure, but he does have one pretty big billionaire-style investment. He owns Spendthrift Farms, also in Lexington, because he has a passion for horse racing. He bought it in 2004. As the head of Spendthrift, Hughes has won two consecutive Eclipse Awards, most recently for the filly Beholder.

He did allow GQ writer Jon Ronson into his life for a July 2012 story, just a bit. He revealed that he was born in Oklahoma to a  family with nothing, and remains modest. When he visits Malibu he stays in a spare bedroom in his daughter’s house.

But he also came across as essentially blind to his enormously elevated status in life. He is a billionaire during an era where billionaires don’t pay much in taxes. Now that some call for their tax rate to go up, either through raising their income tax level or the capital gains tax, he seems to have taken it extremely personally.

“I’m a little surprised to find out that I’m an enemy of the state at this time in my life,” he told Ronson. “They talk about your ‘fair share.’ ‘Are you paying your fair share?’ Fair is in the eyes of the beholder … I hope I don’t come off like some big person…so conservative…. I believe in spreading it around, but I believe in doing it myself.”