Donald Trump: The secret of his success

Trump: My father was 'proud' of the job I did

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Donald Trump is not just the archetype of an "All-American Billionaire". He's also turned himself into a global brand. But what's the secret of his success?

Donald Trump was in Scotland recently, collecting an honorary doctorate from a university in Aberdeen. In the press conference afterwards, he said he was thinking about running for President in 2012.

'Trump considers White House bid' produced more coverage than his honorary doctorate. Whether or not he runs, Trump knew the media would take the bait. They always do.

In 1999, he said the same thing and generated the same kind of attention. And that was just a rerun of 1987, when rumours were also flying about Trump running for President. The following year, George Bush senior was elected - without Trump on the ticket.

Through the many ups and downs of a long business career, one of Trump's key assets has been his relationship with a media that never tires of his name.

The Big Apple
Donald Trump in Central Park A man and his town: Donald Trump in Manhattan

He has had two bites at the Big Apple. In the first, he was a blonde, twenty-something tycoon from Brooklyn who developed huge, shiny buildings like Trump Tower on New York's Fifth Avenue. He and his wife Ivana became fixtures on the New York celebrity circuit.

But as the eighties drew to a close, Trump was battling for his business life, at what can now be seen as the end of the first part of his glittering career. Recession hit Trump's many projects and forced him into a spectacular near-bankruptcy. Around the same time, his marriage ended in divorce.

But Trump survived - to breathe life back into his business, and find domestic happiness again too.

The Trump franchise

Today, he is a celebrity with global, rather than national, recognition. But in some ways, not much has changed.

He still lives in his Trump Tower triplex, he's still got a model wife - his third, Melania Knauss -, and he insists he's still got his own hair, whose curious architecture is now a key part of the image.

He's back at the top of his game, but this time round, it's a bigger game than in the eighties.

Trump on Lord Sugar: 'I like Alan very much'

There are 21 Trump buildings in New York, and more around the country and the world. There are 10 Trump golf courses, and another one in Scotland under construction - against some publicity-generating opposition, which he freely admits has helped raise its profile.

He has his very own beauty pageant business, Miss Universe. And he co-owns a huge global TV franchise, and stars in the original US-version of The Apprentice, which he developed together with Mark Burnett. (Lord Alan Sugar is Britain's version of Trump.)

Trumpeting Trump

Start Quote

Trump's career was never just about money... fame was the real goal.”

End Quote Ned Eichler former business partner

The key to Trump's business and media longevity, in both phases of his career, has been his ability to monetise his name.

Putting "Trump" in large gold letters on Trump Tower may have started as an ego-trip, but it quickly turned into a smart business move. Today he estimates the brand centred on his name as being worth $3bn - about half the $6bn he says he's worth.

Others dispute the figures: the authoritative Forbes Rich List, with which he regularly disagrees, has him down for 'only' $2bn to $3bn.

Whatever the number, nobody disputes that the name Donald J. Trump, on a residential building, a hotel, or even a silk tie, gives it a value it wouldn't have if it was branded Donald J. Bloggs.

Ned Eichler, a businessman who dealt with Trump in the early days, recognised Trump's priorities right from his first project. Trump's career, recalls Eichler, was never just about money: "money was just part of the fame, but fame was the real goal."

Too big to fail
Donald Trump, Bob Hope and Ivana Trump Donald and Ivana Trump, here with Bob Hope, were part of New York High Society

Trump turned fame into money by writing an early autobiography and self-help book, The Art of the Deal, a couple of years before his financial crisis. He plugged it relentlessly, even turning up on the Wogan show with his wife Ivana. The book was a huge best-seller, adding to the name-recognition he had already created.

In his late eighties crisis, when a slew of Trump businesses were struggling to keep up interest payments on massive loans, his creditors had to decide whether to pull the plug on his empire. That they decided not to, says his biographer Gwenda Blair, was thanks to his name recognition:

"He was one of the first to get, that getting his name on things, getting his name associated with luxury, and making himself the central character, would make him the irreplaceable piece."

He was, in a phrase the recent global financial crisis has made familiar again, "too big to fail".

New caution

Trump has his own account of how he scraped through that crisis, saying "it turned out that the banks liked me a lot". But he admits he 'took his eye off the ball' in the late eighties, over-expanding and believing his own hype.

Apprentice creator Mark Burnett: 'Donald is not the kind of enemy you would want'

Who wouldn't when, as he remembers, his own father told him that "everything you touch turns to gold?"

Twenty years on, he's more cautious, saying he calculates what might go wrong before committing himself to a deal.

One sign of this new caution is what he calls the "branding deals" he negotiates with the developers of some of the latest Trump buildings.

They use his name on the building, along with his contacts and marketing expertise, and give him a share of the upside. If the project goes wrong, Trump's financial exposure is limited.

Family business

At the same time, with the help of three of his children, Don Jnr, Ivanka and Eric, who now work as Trump executives, he's taken his business in new directions to exploit the brand he's created.

So alongside new luxury apartment blocks like New York's Trump World Tower, the tallest residential building in the city, there are the golf clubs and overseas resorts, such as those in Hawaii and (to come) Panama.

Donald Jnr, Ivanka and Eric Trump tell their story

And there are Trump managed hotels, like the huge gold building in Las Vegas, where the Trump brand, once the preserve of the super-rich, is open to anyone who wants to stay a night in a reasonably priced room.

The familiar business journey from upmarket to profitable mass market works for Trump as well as for other brands.

At 64, Donald Trump is still firing on all cylinders. In years to come, it will be up to his children to maintain the right kind of media profile, so that the company can keep charging a premium for the name Mr Trump has worked so hard to associate with success.

Donald Trump: All-American Billionaire is on BBC Two on Sunday, 28 November, at 2100 UK time

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