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07.27.11

George Soros Quits the Silver Fox Club

As the philanthropist prepares to close his hedge fund, Bill Coles on why the world’s wealthiest men often work well into their eighties—and regret retirement when they finally take it.

With the news yesterday that George Soros is closing his funds to outside investors, it seems that the billionaire financier may be on the verge of doing the unthinkable: quitting that extraordinary band of Silver Foxes who are 80 years old and still going strong.

But while Soros may—finally—be preparing to hang up his spreadsheets, there are still three billionaire senior citizens out there who seem to have every intention of dying with their boots on: investor Warren Buffett, Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, and the media baron Rupert Murdoch. By a remarkable coincidence, these four men not only share an unquenchable thirst for work, but were also born within a few months of one another—each is 80 years old.

So what is it that spurs these men on? Why can't they be like the vast majority of multimillionaires who seem only too thrilled to settle down and start spending their loot? More to the point, why can't these Silver Foxes just accept the fate of those young pup pensioners—the guys in their 70s—who have learned to embrace a life of booze and cruises and sunshine by the sea?

For their part, the Silver Foxes are slightly shy about revealing why it is that they continue to rage, rage against the dying of the light. They're not interested in motives—they're just looking for the next dollar, the next deal, the next victory. In fact, they're not just looking for the next challenge, they're yearning for it.

The recent phone-hacking scandal at News Corp. may indeed have brought about the most humbling day of Rupert Murdoch's life, but one also senses it's been like a clarion call to the old war horse. Far from standing down, Murdoch insists that he's "the best person to clean this up." Likewise with Ecclestone, who, now that he has the entire Formula 1 wolfpack nipping at his heels, seems to be relishing the prospect of his next epic battle.

One man who may have some small inkling of what it is that drives these Silver Foxes is Pierre van Goethem, a vice president and financial adviser with UBS in Manhattan. Van Goethem has been on Wall Street for 37 years, still gets in to work at 7:45 a.m. on the dot, and never takes a holiday. He is 82.

Some people are corporate creatures, he says, whose only dream is to retire rich, and others are professionals, whose work is their passion.

"A lot of people put up with boredom and unpleasant things in life so that they can ultimately get themselves into a pleasant position," says van Goethem, who has no children and who was widowed last year after 40 years of marriage. "For them, it's the only way they could reach a goal. For the managers at Coca-Cola, Coke is never going to be their passion. They want to make money and play golf. They are quite different from what I call the professionals, who are passionate about they do.”

"For me,” he continues, “I enjoy my work, and if I retired I don't know what I'd do. I have always hated the idea of hobbies. I think they're senseless."

Van Goethem works five days a week, and though he has travelled extensively, has no desire ever to leave Manhattan again.

"I have an equilibrium in Manhattan between my work and my social life," he says. "I get in early, which allows me to call people after lunch in Europe. By about 2:30 or 3 p.m., I get tired and I go home for my siesta, and then I'm ready for anything going.”

The Silver Foxes are slightly shy about revealing why it is that they continue to rage, rage against the dying of the light.

"In Europe, they kick you out when you're much younger. It's difficult to be the director of a public company if you're over 70. I had one friend who was out at 55. But if you play golf every day, you can have bad days on the golf course, too. It's not a perfect solution.”

"These people who choose to retire and spend their time travelling and on cruises—well, I'm not sure they're as happy as they thought they'd be. There's a lot of varnish. If you concentrate on these meaningless activities, they can generate as much grief as anything else."

He adds: "For the professionals, work is the main purpose in their lives. With Rupert Murdoch, his life is the media and nothing else. I don't think he's thought about anything else for decades. What would he do on a cruise? He would worry about all the slip-ups that would be made while he was staring at the horizon. These people like Murdoch can't do anything else but work. It would be impossible."

Bill Coles's fourth novel, Mr Two-Bomb, based on the true story of a man who survived the bombs of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is published by Legend Press.