Written by Rebecca Carr Hedges | Photos by Anthony Harden (March 2017)
Mike Summey built a financial empire by believing in the three D’s—Desire, Discipline, and Dedication.
Mike Summey spent most of his childhood in a low-slung, rock-dust-grey house in the tiny coal town of War, West Virginia. The town was aptly named, as it felt like a war sometimes just to survive there. The drinking water smelled like rotten eggs from sulfur. Sewage waste streamed right into the nearby river. Trains coughed black smoke and spread dust from the coal spilling out of railcars.
Today, Summey lives on a 27-acre gated estate called Xanadu, named after the Bahamian resort once owned by Howard Hughes. Xanadu, nestled on top of a hill overlooking Asheville, features an acrylic cushion tennis court with tournament quality lighting, a 52-foot long pool, a children’s playground that would rival any city park, and a 25-yard firing range. The main house, with majestic white pillars, is large enough to be a private club. When Summey wants to attend a game at his beloved Florida State University (his son is an alumnus), he flies his family in his own Beechcraft King Air Turbo Prop Jet.
Palpable success, indeed. Over the years, Summey has amassed a real estate portfolio more than 500-addresses thick, one that generates several million in annual revenue. He has written four best-selling financial books as part of his “Weekend Millionaire” series, and produced an audio program on investments, and he recently published a new title, the Financial Security Bible: How to Build Wealth and Be Happy. Part memoir and part self-help book, it details his experiences over the years, what he learned from those experiences—including the failures—and how others can learn from their own. It’s a book that weaves personal tales of inspiration with practical instruction on how others can strive to get ahead.
Summey’s journey from the southernmost town of West Virginia to Xanadu is more than just book-worthy; it’s almost like a Johnny Cash song come to life. The power to propel him there can be traced back to a handwritten goal that he wrote to himself in 1967 after being laid off from an Asheville defense plant: I will become a millionaire by age 30 and retire by age 50.
At the time, Summey was just 21 years old, but those words, written on a carefully folded slip of yellow lined paper, have been tucked inside Mike Summey’s wallet and mind for the past 51 years. To him, it is a reminder of where he came from and the power of believing in what he calls the three D’s—desire, discipline, and dedication—to achieve whatever goal you set.
The idea struck him in the middle of the night when, in the aftermath of losing his job, he was restless with worry about his future. He bolted upright in bed and said, “Why can’t I be rich?”
His wife at the time rolled over and said, “Because you ain’t doing anything to become rich. Now go back to sleep.”
This was the impetus that inspired him. And he realized that if he was going to make something of himself, he first needed to set a goal. The next day, thinking hard and weighing his options, he decided that rather than follow the example of his fellow co-workers who’d also lost their jobs in the plant’s downsizing—i.e., register for unemployment benefits or look for another factory job—he would start his own business. While working at the plant, Summey had developed a talent for painting signs. It was a marketable skill, and he believed he could convince local businesses to buy his signs. He spent his $300 severance pay to buy a used van and supplies to get started. He also vowed never to work for someone else again.
But it was not easy. In his first year, he earned just $3,400, well below the $4,160 he had been earning annually at the defense factory. He kept telling himself that the difference was that he was now independent and working for himself, and not vulnerable to being fired or laid off. He plowed his earnings back into the business, resisting the temptation to quit and go back to the relative safety of a factory job. Most of all, he focused on improving his product so that it would be cheaper yet more professional looking than the competition.
“I was struggling just to keep food on the table,” he reflects now. “It would have been very easy to give up and quit. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was gradually developing the toughness and tenacity I would need to achieve success later.”
Becoming a millionaire is a lofty goal for anyone, to be sure, but particularly so for a young adult with no college credentials, connections, or money to do much of anything. Undeterred, those words became fighting words for Mike Summey. Words that he would look to again and again for inner strength whenever he had to face a challenge or overcome a hurdle—the limits of deeply entrenched Appalachian poverty; a stepfather he felt had been abusive toward him; a long-lost biological father who openly mocked his decision to start a business; and, crucially, a financial world that seemed stacked against men of his modest beginnings and background.
“Character is built in the crucible of hard times,” is how Summey describes his childhood in one of his clipped, common-sense sentences found throughout Financial Security Bible.
Over the course of three decades, Summey’s sign-making business grew from a small local company into a multi-million dollar billboard company with offices in North and South Carolina. Its expansion was gradual, but steady, and it also had the proverbial “Eureka!” moment. In the late 1960s, when the billboard industry came under fire from highway beautification advocates led by Lady Byrd Johnson, Summey invented and patented a solution: the single pole billboard, one which would replace the ground-based billboards lining the nation’s highways.
Summey is not sure how he came up with the idea of a single-pole billboard. “When you have a problem, you look for a solution,” he says. At the time, people complained that billboards were built with multiple poles low to the ground and with a mish-mash of lattice work that not only blocked views, they made it a perfect place for vermin to hide behind. He started experimenting with small signs in Asheville that were erected on one steel pole. “It was quite successful because the vermin were gone and you could see the view,” he explains. Soon, in the Biltmore area of downtown Asheville, Summey had two four-sided signs with single-pole supports.
The single-pole solution was a revolutionary change for the industry and was adopted around the globe. The design is still used today. But that is not where Summey grew wealthy, because he also shared the information about the single pole invention with his competitors and never collected a dime from royalties. (Sharing his experiences and knowledge has become a consistent theme in Summey’s life.) It would be in the late 1970s, when the industry was facing opposition from highway safety advocates who contended billboards were distracting for drivers, that Summey’s accountant advised him to diversify his financial holdings. One plausible and attractive option: the rental real estate market.
Busy Life, Passive Income
After several months of searching, Summey purchased his first rental property, a three-bedroom, one-bath starter ranch house in the Camelot subdivision of Asheville. He did not make money in his first year, spending all of the rental income on the $223 mortgage and insurance and paying a property management company to serve as landlord. But the next year, he raised the rent and cleared a $25 monthly profit. It was not much, but it was a start, and he began looking for additional properties.
As the principal owed on his real estate investments’ mortgages went down, Summey saw more money streaming into his bank account, with little work required to maintain it. From the beginning, Summey set up a special bank account where he deposited all of the income from his properties and paid all of the expenses. Rather than spend money on hobbies or expensive vacations, he lived frugally, intending also to put at least 20 percent of his annually earned income from the sign business into buying more properties. By reinvesting the money, he was able to expand and build an income stream, something he refers to as “passive income.”
In Summey’s view, wealth is not having the big house, the fancy car, the country club membership, or the private plane. Wealth is about being able to maintain your standard of living if you are suddenly no longer able to work and earn money. In other words, wealth is a passive income stream for which you do not have to trade labor.
“Those living a modest lifestyle that the income from their investments will support are wealthier than those living a lavish lifestyle they can’t sustain if they suddenly lose their job,” he says. “I’ve known people who were flying high financially, but crashed and burned in a couple months after losing their income.”
One of those people was a close friend who lived lavishly until he suffered a massive brain aneurism and died. Upon his death, his family learned that he left them penniless and in debt. That death had a lasting impact on Summey. He wanted to make sure his own family was protected. Summey was determined to not just plan for the future with insurance policies, but to create a stream of income from rental properties that would provide for his family when he died.
If You Really Want It, You Will Find A Way To Get It
Life is full of defining moments, points in time when a complicated mess of a situation suddenly becomes clear. Summey’s first recollection of such a moment came when he was eight and his best friend got a brand new bicycle.
In 1954, the town of War had not yet undergone the economic devastation that the eventual decline of the coal mining industry would bring. But it was still the type of place where for a kid living there, a new toy of any kind was considered special, but a bicycle meant independent mobility, the freedom to ride all over town.
Summey wanted one to pedal around with his friend. He needed help from his mother and stepfather, Paul.
His mother told him they could not afford a bike, but that if he really wanted one, she bet he could “find a way to get it.”
“Although I did not realize it at the time, the way she reacted to my wanting a new bicycle taught me my first life lesson: Everyone is not equal, but opportunities are,” Summey says, adding that he believes that the confidence his mother instilled in him that day was a crucial building block for his life. She taught him that by believing in himself, he could do anything he set his mind to doing.
The bike store owner, who was also his friend’s mother, told him he could finance the bike over 34 weeks if he could pay $1 per week. That was a lot of money in the 1950s, but Summey was determined to earn every penny. He picked up bottles, scrap metals, and coal from the train tracks and resold them for cash. It was tough going. The most he could eke out was 45 cents, less than half of what he needed each week. Then, he spotted an advertisement to sell a national weekly newspaper called Grit for a nickel a copy. The company let its sellers keep two cents for every paper sold. If he could sell 50 papers a week, he could pay $1 toward the bicycle each week. With the help of his teacher, he set out to sign up 50 regular subscribers. When word spread that an eight-year-old boy was working to buy his own bike, Summey got even more subscribers. He was able to meet his financial commitment and then some.
The day he picked up his bike, he concluded that his mother was right. If you wanted something badly enough, you could find a way to get it. “What would have happened if my mother, knowing how much I wanted a bicycle, had simply given me one? No gift could have taken the place of the life lessons I learned from this experience.”
It would have been much easier to feel sorry for himself or jealous about his friend having a bike. “It’s much harder to stand up and do something about it.”
The bicycle purchase taught Summey about financial independence, credit, and making a good impression. Credit is a good thing, he realized, when used to buy something that can be used to earn money—such as buying a bicycle to deliver papers. The responsible way he independently paid for his bike caught the eye of new subscribers (he was now up to 73), as well as the town’s Western Union telegraph manager, who hired him to deliver telegraphs at 25 cents per delivery. Back then, a quarter was a lot of money.
Summey’s teacher advised him to save the extra money as backup in case he could not earn the full dollar for some reason. In the end, he paid off the bike in three months, less than half the time he initially anticipated. And he learned the importance of maintaining a cash reserve for emergencies, a lesson that would help him later on.
“I realized then that people help people who are willing to help themselves,” Summey says.
The Hard Knock Road to Asheville
A few years later, in 1958, Summey’s stepfather, Paul, got a promotion and moved the family to a three-bedroom house in Bluefield, Virginia. It should have felt like paradise after War, but it didn’t. Summey’s relationship with Paul had already been somewhat tense, and in the new town, it worsened. In retrospect, Summey is not sure if the resentment stemmed from the arrival of half-siblings—two brothers and a sister—or from not knowing his own father and why he originally left.
He believes it also had a lot to do with the chores that Paul would make him do to “earn his keep.” For example, he was forced to haul mounds of dirt up a long steep driveway to build a large terrace in the area where his mother wanted to put a clothesline. That might not sound unreasonable, but the exacting way it was doled out and the length of time it would take—two years—built resentment with each load. Each day, Paul would assign a certain number of loads for him to dump. He was not allowed to spread it until Paul came home to make sure he had hauled enough loads. On the days when he did not haul enough dirt to meet Paul’s expectations, he would have to go out after dark to finish. Summey was 13 and new in town, but rather than meet friends, he went home after school and went straight to the task of hauling dirt. Other kids teased him, calling him “dirt digger” and “Mud Dauber,” names that followed him to high school.
Summey’s animosity toward Paul finally erupted into a physical fight one night. Paul verbally attacked him, saying he was so stupid that he did not have the “sense that God gave a dumb goose.” Summey swung back with his fist. Paul knocked him in a corner and kicked him into submission.
Summey said he crawled back to his bedroom, vowing to himself that he would get out of the situation as soon as possible. His chance came a few weeks later. The family made a weekend visit to his grandmother’s home in Abingdon, Virginia, and Summey made his move. As the family got ready to return home on Sunday afternoon, Summey went out the back door with no money and no plans. He just knew he wasn’t going back to Bluefield.
“When I walked out that back door and ran, I did so with the total commitment that I would never return to the life I had known up to that time. Was I scared? Absolutely.” He had learned the importance of making a decision and then making it work. This is something that he has carried with him his entire life.
The rolling hills of the area offered very little cover to hide when Paul came searching for him. The only place nearby that he could find cover was a swamp filled with cattails. He submerged himself up to his neck so that the color of his clothes would not give him away. Water snakes, muskrats, and other swamp creatures swam around him as he stood there until dusk. Only when Paul stopped calling his name did he feel it was safe to come out.
He was cold, wet, and tired. But he was free. He made his way to a dam that backed up the swamp and washed the mud off in the water spilling over the dam. He spent the night in a corn crib. The next morning, when he was sure his family had returned to Bluefield, he went back to see his grandmother. She had always taken his side about his fights with Paul, and he hoped that she would let him finish out high school in Abingdon with her, telling her that he would work around her house to earn his own keep. His grandmother called his mother, agreeing that it would be best for him to get away from Paul. His mother, reluctantly, agreed to let him stay and shipped his clothes overnight on a bus.
It was there, in March 1963, in the attic of his grandmother’s house, that he discovered a letter in handwriting similar to his own, stuck inside an old cigar box. The letter was written by his biological father to his mother some 16 years before when he left the family. The envelope had a return address, so Summey wrote the letter he had wanted to write his entire life.
“My hands were trembling, my heart was racing and an overwhelming feeling of anxiety spread over me,” Summey said. He had a strong desire to know his real father because of the animosity he felt from his stepfather.
The discovery led to the father and son connecting by phone and then in person. When it came time to graduate from high school a few months later, Summey decided he would board a bus and head to North Carolina to live with his father in Asheville.
“Everyone faces problems, but as I learned, it’s not the problems: It is how you respond to them that determines your success or failure in life,” Summey says. “Reflecting back on that year, the biggest lesson I learned is that you don’t become successful with a head full of anger, resentment, and negative thoughts. Positive, positive, positive is the way to go. Growing requires stretching, getting out of your comfort zone.”
Summey’s first job in Asheville was working as a lab technician at the Sayles Biltmore Bleachery, a textile factory. For a time, his life stabilized. He had a steady job, a 1959 Studebaker Lark, and some new clothes.
But, inside, he wanted more.
He saw an ad offering $80 per week, about $20 more than he was earning at the factory, to get families to accept a free set of encyclopedias in exchange for writing a positive endorsement that the company could use in its marketing campaigns. When he told his father, he became furious and told Summey if he was going to leave a safe factory job to go sell encyclopedias, he might as well find a new place to live because he was not going to support him.
Summey took the encyclopedia job and moved out of his father’s house into a small attic apartment in downtown Asheville.
Not Too Fast To Fail
In his mind, he was determined to do well. “Winners,” says Summey, “understand that making mistakes, learning from them, and then applying what they learn is the secret to accomplishment. It didn’t matter to me whether we would be giving away free encyclopedias or selling them. What was important to me was the opportunity to make more money than I’d ever made.”
Summey did so well at convincing couples to put encyclopedias in their homes that the company promoted him into management within six months. He was on the fast track when he learned the hard way that if you get promoted too fast, promoted before you are capable of the next rung in the ladder, you will likely fail.
The first morning in his new post as office manager, two of his sales managers quit with no notice. They were upset that he had leapfrogged over them to become their boss. His secretary also quit.
Summey’s educational background did not include organizational skills, people skills or management techniques—all things he could learn and would learn along the way. But at this stage, he was not yet ready to supervise employees. Instead of growing the office from 25 to 50 employees, he lost employees and morale was at an all-time low. Summey learned an important lesson from the experience: The ability to do and the skill to manage are very different traits. He was successful doing the work himself, but teaching and encouraging other people to do the work was something in which he had no experience.
“Management is getting things done through other people, not yourself. Leadership is not jumping in front of a crowd and yelling, ‘Follow me.’ It is being the kind of person others want to follow. My limited education at the time prevented me from understanding these basic principles of management.”
Summey eventually resigned from the encyclopedia company and found a job working as a lab technician at Northrop Carolina, Incorporated, the defense plant in Asheville. He took a pay cut and a step down in the financial ladder in order to leave his management post at the encyclopedia company and return to factory life, but Summey unwittingly ended up acquiring a new skill at the plant that would help cement his financial success: How to paint signs.
One morning, the plant’s chief chemist asked him to find a place to make three “Danger—Keep Out” signs for a test area he would be using. Summey called around town, but no one could do it on such short notice. Rather than come up empty-handed, Summey offered to do the work using plywood and paint from the company store. The chemist was so impressed by Summey’s ability to get the job done before the testing date that he brought up it up at the management meeting. Soon, Summey was earning extra income from multiple departments at the plant painting signs. For the first time since the encyclopedia company, he was able to save money. “When I undertook the project, I had no idea that it would lead me down a life-changing path.”
A few months later, the same chemist who had praised him for his hustle with the signs was forced to let him go. It was 1967, and defense contracts for the Vietnam war had started to dry up.
And it was at this point that Summey had his middle-of-the-night epiphany to get rich. When he told his father of his plans to start his own sign company, his father had a similar reaction to the decision to sell encyclopedias. “’That’s the biggest crock of &%#$ I’ve ever heard of,’” Summey recalls his father yelling at him. “‘You’d better get a job and go to work. That’s even worse than that stupid idea you had about selling encyclopedias.’”
As noted above, Summey’s sign business would eventually grow into a multi-million dollar billboard company. Summey sold Summey Outdoor Advertising in 1997 and “functionally retired” at age 50—right on time. By then he had also served as president of the North Carolina Outdoor Advertising Association, as well as the National Speakers Association-Carolinas. He founded and served as president of the Council of Independent Business Owners. And North Carolina governor Jim Hunt awarded him the prestigious Order of the Long Leaf Pine, an award that recognizes extraordinary service to the community.
All In The Family
The basic principles that Summey has learned along the way—to borrow money only to purchase assets that earn enough to pay back debt and make a profit; to not go into debt for expensive luxury goods like cars—positioned him well over the years. And that lesson he learned with his Grit paper route—maintain adequate cash reserves to meet obligations no matter what the conditions might be—was a lesson that clearly paid off.
At the end of 2008, after the country had entered the worst recession since the Great Depression, Summey set up an LLC, and the following year he began purchasing additional properties with his two sons, Jason and Matt. He had the cash reserves (as well as impeccable credit) to allow him to purchase more than 200 properties with the young men. That family effort continues to this day, and it’s a point of pride for him that his sons have achieved their own success in the real estate investing business.
As he walks me through Xanadu, Summey pauses at a room, gesturing at what he calls his “man cave.” There is a two-story wall crammed with books, and another wall devoted to four flat screen TVs so that he and his sons can watch four football games at once. This is his home, a place where his five grandchildren visit often and feel free to play with their toys cluttering the floor under the coffee table. Mike Summey is a man at peace. He’s proud of the fact that he was able to mend fences with both his stepfather and his biological father, to the point where his mother and Paul moved to Asheville in 1990 to live near him, and his father wound up working for him the last ten years of his life. His grown sons are both happy and successful in their own right: Jason had a career in law enforcement before entering the nursing profession, while Matt is an Apache helicopter instructor pilot with the United States Army. And like their father did while he ran his sign business, the sons are investing in real estate together to build their own passive income streams.
Yet as successful as he is, don’t think that Summey has acquired pretentious airs with his wealth. He might drive the latest BMW and pilot his own airplane, but he also likes to bowl, hunt, and volunteer. On the day of our interview, he fields multiple calls from the six squads of active reserves that he oversees as a lieutenant for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office. He pulls out his wallet and proudly shows his lieutenant’s badge.
Summey’s father introduced him to former Buncombe sheriff Harry P. Clay, who was impressed enough to swear him as a special deputy in 1964. Summey has been volunteering ever since, for 53 years. As he puts it, “It’s been a way to give back to the community other than just writing a check to a charity.” Summey’s squads, for example, provided round-the-clock law enforcement while firefighters battled the huge Party Rock fire at Lake Lure last fall. They also register sex offenders in Buncombe County and control traffic at events such as the Smoky Mountain Toy Run and other large fundraisers.
Along with his role as the “Weekend Millionaire” author, Summey has frequently appeared on radio and television shows as a financial expert. For a number of years he also wrote a popular “tips for financial success” column for the Asheville Citizen-Times, and he has been a regular financial columnist in the past to this publication as well (you can view his columns at CapitalatPlay.com). Summey says it is difficult to rank which of these “jobs” has been his favorite, as all have been very rewarding. What has clearly been the most meaningful, however, is achieving his goal of retiring at 50, and watching his grandchildren run happily around Xanadu.
Above all, Summey hopes that his story will encourage others to achieve financial independence. He sums up his feelings in the first sentence of the Financial Security Bible: “I believe the greatest injustice successful people can do to their fellow man is to go to their graves and take with them the knowledge that brought them success.”
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