Angry billionaires make disturbing neighbours

When Bill Gross, the financier formerly known as the “bond king”, bought a $32m California beach mansion two years ago, his reputation preceded him. “I wouldn’t want an angry billionaire with a short fuse living next to me,” his neighbour Mark Towfiq was told. The inevitable quarrel, with accusations of harassment, came to court this week.

Upset by Mr Towfiq’s complaints about a $1m glass sculpture on his property, Mr Gross blared loud music over the fence, including mariachi tracks and the theme song to the 1960s US sitcom, Gilligan’s Island. “Peace on all fronts or we’ll just have nightly concerts, big boy,” 76-year-old Mr Gross allegedly texted.

Mr Gross is not the only rich homeowner to fight with a neighbour. Louis Bacon, a hedge fund billionaire, has been involved for 11 years in a bitter argument with Peter Nygard, a Canadian entrepreneur whose estate in the Bahamas adjoins his own. The accusations against Mr Nygard include claims reported in the New York Times that he sexually assaulted young women, which he has denied.

Tensions between neighbours also contributed to Tidjane Thiam’s resignation as Credit Suisse chief executive this year. Mr Thiam’s partner argued at a cocktail party with Iqbal Khan, then the bank’s head of wealth management, after Mr Khan bought the house next door and complained that Mr Thiam’s trees spoiled his view of Lake Zurich.

Battles between neighbours over noise and obstructive vegetation are quite common, but the wealthy take them to extremes. Why are billionaires so prone to falling out with the people next door? I can think of three reasons.

First, they thrive on beating others. Mr Gross once remarked that “my desire is to win, and win forever”, and his self-diagnosis in a Lunch with the FT interview last year was not far off the warning given to Mr Towfiq. Mr Gross said that undiagnosed Asperger’s had made him “a singular, dominating, angry, quiet, introverted person”.

There are jaunty billionaires — Warren Buffett springs to mind — but quite a few match the description quoted approvingly by Donald Trump in his 2004 book Think Like a Billionaire. They possess “a single-minded determination to impose their vision on the world [and] an irrational belief in unreasonable goals, bordering at times on lunacy”.

Many people are irritated by those nearby, but only some fight: a lot depends on their sense of entitlement. “People may perceive an event as injurious but still feel that they deserve what they got,” said one study, noting that those “who feel they can effectively influence or manipulate outcomes” are more likely to sue.

Second, billionaires do not like to share. One of the privileges of being very rich is existing in a cocoon — travelling by private jet and holidaying on yachts. Having a mutual border with a neighbour who can peer over the fence is normal for most but not for a mogul.

This seems especially to irritate billionaires with beach houses. There has been a series of legal battles by the wealthy in California trying to stop surfers crossing their land to reach public beaches. David Geffen, the entertainment entrepreneur, finally turned over the keys to a gate to “Billionaires’ Beach” in Malibu in 2005 after years of conflict.

Mr Geffen was the soul of compromise compared with Vinod Khosla, the venture capitalist, who has fought the California Coastal Commission for a decade in his effort to prohibit access to the beach in front of his 53-acre property south of San Francisco. He tried and failed in 2018 to get the US Supreme Court to intervene.

Third, they can afford it. Going to court is very expensive, and potentially ruinous for losers without deep pockets, but those costs are a minor irritation for billionaires. The battle between Mr Bacon and Mr Nygard has involved at least 25 lawsuits in five jurisdictions and racked up tens of millions in bills.

They tend to have lawyers on call, along with advisers who make their living from business and legal contests (the US president is a particular devotee of routinely suing rivals and others). If you are used to taking fights for corporate control to the Delaware chancery court, it feels only natural to serve an injunction on your neighbour.

The effect of wealth on willingness to battle in public can be seen elsewhere. The number of contentious probate cases in UK courts has risen sharply in recent years, partly because the estates have grown in value as a result of property riches. The more money available, the more work for lawyers and judges.

So there will continue to be entertainment value in the neighbourly fights of billionaires. Take someone who is used to winning at all costs, focus them on a domestic resentment and you get some very odd behaviour. Mr Gross, for example, was accused of spraying fart smells around his former marital home in a 2018 divorce battle.

“I went to a drugstore and found smelly shit. I don’t know why I did that,” he reflected to the FT. Well, search me. Suffice it to say that the qualities that create great fortunes can also make terrible neighbours.

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