I met Bernie Marcus, the great entrepreneur, philanthropist and free-market evangelist, last week at his spacious home in Boca Raton Fla. — and of course, he wasted no time letting me know how he really feels.
“I’m in a particularly pissed-off mood,” Marcus told me as we sat down. “I’ve got a lot on my mind. This is going to be some interview.”
I told him I expected nothing less.
Marcus is best known as one of the founders of Home Depot, teaming up with financier Ken Langone and businessman Arthur Blank to create from scratch a company that employs nearly a half-million people working in thousands of stores across the country.
Yet the basics of the Home Depot story don’t do justice to Marcus’ legacy. He’s a voluble billionaire and a proud conservative activist who grew up in a fourth-floor Newark, NJ, tenement apartment.
“We were poorer than you could imagine. And my ambition in those days was to make $25,000 a year and take care of my family.”
He did that and lot more. In Home Depot, Marcus created what is now a $150 billion-a-year revenue business, plus tens of billions in wealth — and made a few billion himself. He’s given many millions of it away to charities and politicians he believes can make a difference in reversing the country’s devolution into near socialism.
Marcus retired from Home Depot in 2002 but that doesn’t mean he went off to some beach somewhere. He’s fighting the good fight, writing checks to elect free-market types in state and federal government. A little more than a decade ago, he created a free-market advocacy group, the Job Creators Network, which lobbies on behalf of entrepreneurs and small businesses.
“Charlie, I’m 94 years old. Unfortunately, I have a 60-year-old brain, a 94-year-old body,” he said during our wide-ranging interview, obviously concerned that he doesn’t have much time left to fight this good fight. “I’ve said this to all of my friends, anybody who would listen: if this election goes the way the last one went, this country will be a Third World country.”
Biden a ‘dunce’
He blames much of America’s woes on President Biden, who beat Bernie’s friend Donald Trump in the 2020 election and will likely face Trump in 2024. He calls Biden a “dunce” and says he’s the “most divisive president we’ve ever seen.” Labeling nearly half the country as knuckle-dragging MAGA Republicans wasn’t a smart way to heal the country, a goal Biden claimed was a priority.
Maybe worse, Marcus says, is Biden’s lack of mental acuity (“somebody is feeding him like a puppet”), unforced spending and policy errors that have led to inflation and an explosion in federal debt.
As bad as Biden has been, Marcus says he also has misgivings about Trump. “Wages were up. Minorities were working. Inflation was down” during the Trump presidency, he said. “But he can’t keep his mouth shut . . . I’m afraid if he’s elected, the first thing he does is go after his enemies, starting with the Republicans.”
Good points. I bring up Trump’s noxious Twitter feed and his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots, whether he should step aside giving Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or ex-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, both successful politicians, a shot.
“I’m struggling with it now,” Marcus said, “I think [Trump] has the policies if he would just follow the script and do what he has to do.”
Marcus brings me back to his story as he describes why, for all its problems, America is worth fighting for. In 1978, Marcus had just gotten fired as CEO of a hardware-store chain known as Handy Dan. Unsure what to do, he was talking about his future with Langone, the straight-talking financier.
Langone advised (in a very Langonean way) that Marcus pursue that entrepreneurial venture he had been mulling — something called Home Depot. “Kenny said, ‘You just got hit in the ass with a golden horseshoe,’ ” and offered to “put together investors and put me in business.”
Home Depot was born and has grown into a $300 billion market-value company.
Handy Dan closed its doors more than 30 years ago.
Could Marcus create Home Depot today? It wasn’t easy then; it would be nearly impossible now, he said. “Regulations and all this woke crap” has made starting a public company nearly impossible. You have to satisfy not just shareholders, but “stakeholders” and asset managers who force CEOs to embrace woke management metrics like ESG.
“I ran a business for 60 years,” Marcus said. “I would never get involved with a social issue outside of business. That was not my business.”
But the American public is turning against left-wing economic policies. They hate Biden’s inflation and hate corporate wokeness, which offers Marcus some hope for the future. He cited the travails of Budweiser that used trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney in a beer ad, no less.
“They were No. 1 . . . and they turned stupid overnight,” he said. “The American people remember; their sales are going to stay down.”
And the American people, he says, are worth saving from what he believes is a very possible progressive apocalypse. “It’s why at 94 I’m spending a lot of my money trying to make sure we bring the right faces in front of” them.
Don’t stop, Bernie, don’t stop.