“Sometimes,” he whispers, leaning across the table, “if someone is an asshole, like a waiter at a restaurant, I think, I could just buy this place and fire that guy.”
He may sound like Richard Pryor in Brewster’s Millions, but if Tepper really wanted a private plane or a 22-year-old, he could have acquired either long ago. Unlike, say, John Paulson, who hasn’t much distinguished himself since his bet against the housing market was described as The Greatest Trade Ever, he’s not exactly a one-hit wonder. It’s just that before the economy melted down, no one really paid attention to what some guy in New Jersey was doing.
Tepper has been a billionaire—he has to think about it for a minute—since about 2003. Seven years ago. Not that you’d know it from looking at the stone house in Livingston, New Jersey, where he has lived and raised three children with his wife, Marlene, for the past twenty years, or from Appaloosa’s offices, which are sparsely staffed and conspicuously lack a statement staircase, Jeff Koons sculptures, or any other signs of the taste hedge-fund money usually buys.
But in the seventeen years since he founded Appaloosa, its assets have grown from $57 million to $13 billion. His annualized compound return in that time period is 30 percent net to investors, putting him in line with legendary money managers like Soros, Stanley Druckenmiller, and Julian Robertson.
Again, not that you’d know it. “I will tell you this,” says his friend Phil Glassman, a neighbor with whom Tepper plays poker on Thursdays and golf on Saturdays. “If Dave can take twelve bucks off me on the golf course, he will do it, with pleasure and with a smile.”
Tepper loves it when people say things like this about him. “They’ll also tell you, ‘He never carries cash and has to borrow money to pay for things.’ See?” he says, opening his wallet. It is indeed empty. Also, he could use a new one. “I’m just a regular upper-middle-class guy who happens to be a billionaire.”
Obviously, he has professional reasons for wanting to come off this way—investors like to think the money managers handling their pension funds and endowments are penny-pinching rather than profligate. But for him, it’s more like an obsession. He gleefully describes how he talked the artist Peter Max down on a series of portraits of hedge-fund managers he did for Trader Monthly a few years ago. He’s been known to badger the secretaries about spending too much money on paper cups for the office and for years drove to work in a rusted minivan even while, one employee notes, “half the people in the office were driving Porsches.”
Tepper also has personal reasons for flying under the radar: Being “the billionaire next door,” as Glassman puts it, can be kind of awkward. “You’ll write this article and I’ll hear from someone I haven’t heard from in a long time asking for money,” says his sister, Sheryl Weitman, who lives in Florida. “And I think that’s a hard thing about being David. How do you know who’s your friend, and who is your friend because of the money?”
This is not to say that Tepper doesn’t occasionally act like a billionaire. In 2004, he donated $55 million to his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon. Recently, when the owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers indicated they were willing to sell a stake in the team, he seized the opportunity with childlike enthusiasm. “Owning your favorite football team? Getting to watch all the games from the field? That’s every little boy’s dream,” says his friend Marc Kramer. (So is this: Flying private to every game with four of your closest friends. “It’s like a middle-aged version of Entourage,” says Kramer.) Five years ago, the Teppers hired Ashlee Simpson to sing at their daughter’s bat mitzvah. For his own 50th, he threw himself a little get-together at the Mandarin Oriental, during which he danced onstage with Ellen DeGeneres and sang “All I Wanna Do” and “If It Makes You Happy” with Sheryl Crow.
“It was a kick-ass evening,” remembers his college friend Roland Lazzaro. You wouldn’t have read about it in “Page Six,” though. Steven Schwartzman apparently hogged all the birthday-party news that year.
Lately, perhaps because this recent success has upgraded his status from merely having money to having what on Wall Street is commonly called Fuck-You Money, he doesn’t seem to care as much that people know about his wealth. This past spring, he finally bought not just a vacation home but the vacation home: a $50 million, 6,200-square-foot oceanfront property in the Hamptons belonging to Joanne Corzine. “I’m ready to be rich,” he told a reporter before he made the purchase.