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The Man Behind The Money

February 17, 2014, 10:15 PM by Angela Kennecke

The Man Behind The Money

Credit Card mogul Thomas Denny Sanford has given more money to South Dakota organizations than anyone else in the state's history. 

Everyone knows of his first big gift of $400 million to Sioux Valley Hospital, which was then promptly named Sanford Health.  In all, Sanford has given the new health system more than $800 million. But very few people really know the man behind the money. 

LaJolla, California is a beach community just 14 miles from the heart of San Diego. The average household income here is $81,000, and exactly where you'd expect to find a billionaire. The beach is the location of one of T. Denny Sanford's five homes. 

"The nicest thing about this is the sunsets," Denny Sanford said.

At 78-years-old, Sanford is approaching the sunset of his life and he's using his golden years to give it all away. Sanford is determined to "die broke." 

Angela: How much money have you given away so far?
Denny: Because of some recent pledges, it's over a billion, yeah.  And most of it is paid out.
Angela: What does that feel like?
Denny: It feels wonderful.

Sanford is part of an exclusive club where members are made up of the country's wealthiest individuals. He signed The Giving Pledge, along with the likes of Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates. But he wasn't on board right away because members were only pledging to give away 50 percent of their wealth.

"I get this call from Bill Gates and he said, ‘Ok, Melinda and I have talked it over and we think we're in for 95 percent. Is that good enough?' I said, 'Ok, I'll sign on,'" Sanford said.

And to think, it all started with $50. He was born in East St. Paul, on the "wrong side of the tracks" as he puts it. His father ran a garment wholesale business. William Sanford's business partner Thomas Denny offered to put $50 in a savings account if Sanford named his son after him. 

"I thought I was the wealthiest kid in the world, 8, 10 years old and, 'I've got $50; are you kidding!' That was about 1940," Sanford said.

At age 3, Sanford's mother Edith was admitted to the hospital with breast cancer. She died a year later and Sanford says he has no memories of her. At the age of 8, he started working at his father's business. 

"I took offense a little that I couldn't play a lot of baseball and football and so on and so forth like the rest of the kids. And he said, 'this will pay off someday.' I think it did," Sanford said.
But the road to get there wasn't always a straight one. At the age of 18 he was in jail after a drunken brawl. He asked the judge to release him early so he could go to the University of Minnesota and the judge agreed. 

"It was the biggest turning point in my life, really truly. It was my wake-up call, I call it," Sanford said.

After college, Sanford went to work as a salesman for Armstrong Cork. After bringing in a big new client, he asked this boss for $50 a month raise. 

"He said, 'no' and I said 'adios.'" Sanford said.

Sanford then started his own firm, Contech, a building materials company. Sanford sold it and at the age of 45 he walked away with $20 million. That's when Sanford's first marriage, which had produced two sons, ended. 

"This is my favorite picture of me and Scott," Sanford said.

Scott, age 52 is a ship captain at Lake Tahoe, Bill, age 50 is a physical therapist in Sioux Falls. Neither son followed in his father's footsteps.  

Denny: Gifted to each of them four percent of the bank, four percent of the earnings go to them every year.
Angela: So they're set?
Denny: They're taken care of.

The bank of course is First PREMIER Bank, and later the sub-prime credit card company, PREMIER Bankcard. In 1986, a friend going through a divorce asked him to buy the Sioux Falls bank and he did for $5 million. In 1989 he started the high-fee, high-interest rate credit card for people who had bad credit. Sanford is quick to point out to his critics that it's a risky business and as much as 40-percent of the balances aren't ever paid. But he says it's a way for people to build their credit. 

"Rather than going to the payday lenders that are really the worst of the worst, in my opinion, they come to us, we give them credit. It's a very small amount. We charge a fee to get the card; but it works for them. We've got nearly 3 million people. If it was such a bad card, do you think that nearly 3 million people would sign up for it? I don't think so," Sanford said.

South Dakota's usury laws have no cap on interest rates and fees and there's no corporate income tax, allowing PREMIER Bankcard's worth to grow to as much as $3 billion. 

Denny: That's the question I am asked most often, 'what made you successful?' Only surrounding my self with the very best people I could.
Angela: That's a pretty humble answer.
Denny: It's the truth.

Angela: You've done a lot in a lot of different areas for South Dakota. 
Denny: Well look at what South Dakota has done for Denny Sanford. There is not another state that could have provided me the opportunities that South Dakota has. That's payback time. And very happily payback time.

While Sanford pays back, he does have a jet-set lifestyle. In addition to homes in Sioux Falls and San Diego, Sanford owns another house in Vail and two in Arizona. He designed this 8,000 square foot home in Scottsdale. 

"Totally curve linear. There are no square corners anywhere in the house. It's not round. It just flows," Sanford said.

It took three years to build and he turned down Michael Jordan's offer to buy it for $10 million. But despite the homes and a private jet, Sanford doesn't look for fulfillment in things. 

Angela: I read you drove a Dodge Caravan?
Denny: The car I use out in the garage happens to be 10 years old. Cars don't do much for me. Airplanes do, but only to get me places a little faster, and a little more comfortable. The jet is the biggest luxury I admit I have, by far and away.

Sanford has had a few health scares in the last year, but he's determined to live every day to the fullest. 

Angela: Do you ever have to pinch yourself? As a poor boy growing up in St. Paul, do you ever pinch yourself?
Denny: Yeah, you bet I do. Thank the Lord. Yeah, seriously.

Many people are familiar with Sanford's big gifts to health care systems, but you most likely don't know about some of his other favorite projects and causes. Plus, this 78-year-old is still starting new companies. 

Denny: I'll never retire.
Angela: You'll never retire?
Denny: No, what for? As long as I'm able bodied and have somewhat of a mind left, I'll continue working. I enjoy it.

See that side of the philanthropist billionaire on tomorrow night's Eye on KELOLAND
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