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Thomas Peterffy : A Genuine Self-Made Billionaire
Thomas Peterffy : A Genuine Self-Made Billionaire

The Kid With the American Dream, With Lynn Wheat, , Thomas Peterffy, The Timber Hill Days, Interactive Brokers CEO

“My first wife remained in Hungary”, said my husband.

“So did mine”, responded his friend. “And my son, too.”

“Mine too! When was your son born?”

“In 1944.”

“Mine too!  What month?”

“September.”

“Mine too!  What day?”

“The 29th.”

“Mine too!” shouted my husband at our Stamford, Connecticut home around the year 1960, and the two men started a lively conversation about their sons, both born in Budapest. 

Both men were dreaming of getting their sons out from Communist Hungary but the possibilities were slim.  Coming from one-time gentry families even further limited both boys’ chances to higher education and, supposedly, to a better life.

In a few years, however, the situation eased and older family members were allowed to visit relatives in the West.  Yet 20-year olds were more valuable for the workforce and the military. That is why one of the young men of our story,  20-year old Tamás fled illicitly in 1965 to visit his father in New York, with no intention to return.  His father, Ferenc (Öcsi) Péterffy, lived in a small apartment with his second wife, Betty (first cousin of Tamás’ mother), in Queens, NY (one of those with the fire escape in front of the window) and could not accommodate another person.  Thus he gave his son one hundred dollars, saying: “Now go and make something of yourself!”

And Tamás, now becoming Thomas, did just that.

Ever since he was a little boy, he had dreamed of going to America.  He wanted to live the American Dream.  Now a young man, he set out to make his dream come true.

Not speaking any English but having had some engineering education, he began his career as an architectural draftsman working on highway projects for an engineering firm in New York.  There he volunteered to program their newly purchased computer.  This became his signature venture since he seemed to have an uncanny talent for the logic and organization of the electronic media. 

His unusual mathematical mind, bordering on genius, was the vehicle that enabled him to create a career unprecedented in the recent cyber-history of Hungarians. 

By the early 1970s, Peterffy had saved up enough money to purchase his own seat on the American Stock Exchange to trade equity options.  Throughout his whole career he has consistently pushed to replace manual processes with more efficient automated ones.  During the trading day he would write code in his head and then, after hours, apply his ideas to computerized trading models. 

His current company, Interactive Brokers, consisting of many subsidiaries worldwide, has its roots in Peterffy’s first company, T.P.&Co. that he founded in 1978.  A year later it expanded to four employees.  In 1982, he formed Timber Hill Inc., initially trading equity options at the AMEX.

In 1983, Timber Hill (i.e. Peterffy) created the first hand-held computers for trading. Their introduction, indeed, created a major stir among traders on the trading floor.  That same year they began trading at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange and the company expanded to 12 employees. 

Following this man’s professional career from here on makes anyone’s head spin.  Our hero begins coding a computerized stock index futures and options trading system and every year the company extends to further markets, from New York to Chicago, from the Pacific to Germany.  In 1987, Timber Hill has 67 employees that grows to142 in 1992 and expands to Switzerland in the same year.  The impressive increase continues into the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Austria as well as to Hong Kong and Australia.  In 1994, the Timber Hill Group LLC is formed as the holding company for all of Timber Hill’s operating companies. By the year 1997, Timber Hill boasts 284 employees worldwide.

In 2001, the corporate name of the Timber Hill Group LLC is changed to  Interactive Brokers Group LLC of which he is CEO as well as Chairman. Today Interactive Brokers’ headquarters is in Greenwich, Connecticut, and it has approximately 880 employees in its offices in the USA, Switzerland, Australia, Hungary, Russia, Japan, India, China and Estonia.  Interactive Brokers Group and its affiliates execute nearly 1,000,000 trades per day.  Peterffy is often called the “Father of High Speed Trading” since he was the initial force in computerizing Wall Street.

Being so intensely immersed in business, albeit successfully, takes its toll on marriages.  Peterffy is twice divorced with three adult children.  But don’t have your hopes high, ladies: he has been seeing a lovely Greenwich socialite, Lynn Wheat, for years.

An avid equestrian, in 2004 Peterffy purchased an 80-acre horse farm on Conyer’s Farm in backcountry Greenwich, for $45 million.  It includes a main house with two master suites, six additional bedrooms, a swimming pool, sauna, wine cellar and servants’ quarters, four guest houses, a caretaker’s cottage, two grooms’ quarters and a horse stable with 22 stalls.  This estate has been the stage for many exclusive parties and celebrations including his 65th birthday bash in 2009 and will – no doubt – be the backdrop for his 70th, this September 29th.

A few years ago he also purchased a property known as Blossom Estates in Palm Beach, where his vacation house with an 800+ foot-long boardwalk through the mangroves is being built for him and his guests to watch nature at its best. 

Peterffy is not enrolled in any political party: he is an independent voter with a moderate Republican overtone.  But prior to the 2012 Presidential elections, he purchased millions of dollars worth of airtime to warn voters against impending socialist tendencies of our country in a video that aired on CNN, CNBC and Bloomberg.  The one-minute ad prompted numerous laudatory as well as disapproving comments.  One of his most repeated quote, from the ad, is:    

“Socialism is removing Americans’ will to succeed.  Take away their incentive by badmouthing success and you take away the wealth that helps us take care of the needy.”

Some patently absurd false postings on the Internet claim he was born in 1956, that he is a Jew, that he came to the US in 1956 – you name it.  An array of condemning, often vitriolic, blogs is appearing daily against the man who could achieve more, much-much more with his rare talent than they did and ever will.  What they forget is not only what Peterffy contributes to society by paying his taxes that by now reached about $2 billion in his lifetime, but by assisting millions of investors without whose investments the economy would die. This means that he is not creating all this wealth just for himself to revel in luxury but he actually helps create jobs.  Not only in his own offices but in the whole industry.

At his age, Peterffy still is totally active in his business.  With his newly created Probability Lab he helps his clients understand and participate in business decisions.  With his current (August, 2014) net worth of $9 Billion, Peterffy ranks  #58 among US billionaires and #139 worldwide.  (Forbes)

Happy 70th Birthday, Thomas – keep up the good work!

***

Remember the introductory conversation? 

You might ask: “Whatever happened to the other boy?” 

Well, lacking Tamás’ talent, vision and drive, Miklós said he could not leave his mother so he stayed in Hungary where he has been living with his second wife, Zsuzsa, an office manager, and now his mother, 95, is also in their care.  They raised two children and have one granddaughter. He is retired from working as a crane operator.  Like most Hungarian middle-class families, they live in a modest apartment but travel extensively.  He lives in carpe diem style: likes to eat well and enjoys his whiskey.  And he claims he is happy.

Do you believe in astrology?  Are our fates predestined at birth? If so, both men should have had at least similar lives.  But one decided to follow his dreams; the other, perhaps, had none. 

Olga Vallay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita at Norwalk Community College, CT, after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.

                                                                                                                       

 


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