If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1855

The truth behind Emerson’s timeless observation, posthumously revised to involve building better mousetraps, is nowhere more evident than in the men who populate the Business Journal’s list of Wealthiest Angelenos.

While a handful of the 50 people on the list inherited their wealth, a few move other people’s money around and some found their riches by being hired to helm going concerns, more than half accumulated vast wealth by building, innovating and inventing – and doing it better than others working in the same space.

Doctors, lawyers and corporate chiefs can make very handsome livings, but it takes a bit more to reach the wealth stratosphere. Whether in biotech, entertainment, restaurants or technology, the common trait among the self-made group dominating the list is vision married with a dogged entrepreneurialism.

“The ones that are self-made generally create a product or service in which there’s a massive public interest,” said Larry Harris, who holds the Fred V. Keenan chair in finance at the USC Marshall School of Business. “If what they have is unique and it’s not easily reproduced, it’s pretty much essential they have a mass market.”

L.A.’s richest person, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is, when measured by wealth, the most successful of the breed. A former surgeon, Soon-Shiong grew up in apartheid-era South Africa, graduating medical school at 23 and pursuing a fellowship in Canada before being lured by UCLA to become a researcher. His work there gave rise to APP Pharmaceuticals, which he sold in 2008 for $3.7 billion. Then he built another biotech firm, Abraxis, which he sold two years later for $2.9 billion.

He’s just one example of someone who made it big by creating something a multitude of people wanted or needed, whether it was a new cancer drug or a Chinese fast-food chain.

The latter is what propelled China-born Andrew Cherng and his wife, Peggy, co-founders of the Panda Restaurant Group Inc., to No. 20 with a net worth of $2.75 billion this year.

Indeed, even in Los Angeles, known for its entertainment and aerospace industries, the resumes of the self-made super-rich are quite diverse. They include agriculture, technology, real estate development, retail, homebuilding, beer distribution, auto finance and, yes, movies.


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