Hotel chains to farmland: Gates divorce puts spotlight on vast fortune

Bill and Melinda Gates
The fortune of Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates exceeds the size of Morocco’s annual economy, combines the value of Ford, Twitter and Marriott International and is triple the endowment of Harvard. While few know how their wealth will be divided in the divorce, one thing is clear: breaking it up can’t be easy.

Mr. Gates built one of the great fortunes in human history when he founded Microsoft in 1975 with Paul Allen. The Gateses’ net worth is estimated to be more than $124 billion, and includes assets as varied as trophy real estate, public company stocks and rare artifacts.

There’s a big stake in the luxury Four Seasons hotel chain. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and ranch land, including Buffalo Bill’s historic Wyoming ranch. There are billions of dollars’ worth of shares in companies like AutoNation and Waste Management. There’s a beachfront mansion in Southern California. And one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.

“The amount of money and the diversity of assets that are involved in this divorce boggles the imagination,” said David Aronson, a lawyer who has represented wealthy clients in divorce cases. “There have rarely been cases that are even close to this in size.”

Only the 2019 divorce between the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his now ex-wife, the novelist and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, was bigger. Mr. Bezos had an estimated fortune of $137 billion, though mostly in Amazon stock, and Ms. Scott kept 4 percent of Amazon’s shares, worth $36 billion at the time.

But Mr. Gates has for decades been diversifying his holdings; he owns just 1.3 percent of Microsoft. Instead, his stock portfolio includes stakes in dozens of publicly traded companies. He is the largest private owner of farmland in the country, according to The Land Report. In addition to the Four Seasons, he has stakes in other luxury hotels and a company that caters to private jet owners. His real estate portfolio includes one of the largest houses in the country and several equestrian facilities. He owns stakes in a clean energy investment fund and a nuclear energy start-up.

There is also the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Separate from the rest of the Gates fortune, with an endowment of $50 billion, the foundation is one of the world’s largest charitable organizations and plays a uniquely important role in global public health. The endowment is in a trust and cannot be divided as part of the marital estate, though questions remain about whether it will be the main recipient of their charitable contributions once the split is complete.

The couple has a separation agreement in place, according to the divorce filing by Ms. French Gates, but the details are not disclosed. The filing asks the court to divide their real estate, personal property and debts according to the terms set forth in that agreement. Lawyers for Ms. French Gates have been working on a plan for separating some of the assets since 2019, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

Divorce lawyers not working on the Gates split say some of the personal assets could be hard to value, hard to separate and highly complex. Some of the wealth has already been divided: Soon after the announcement, $2.4 billion worth of shares in AutoNation, Canadian National Railway and two Mexican companies belonging to the couple were transferred to Ms. French Gates — making her a billionaire in her own right.

An itemized list might be harder to come by.

“Divorces are actually one of the times that things crack open and the light shines in,” said Chuck Collins, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and author of “The Wealth Hoarders: How Billionaires Pay Millions to Hide Trillions.” But he added that prenuptial agreements and settlements were designed for privacy. “Parts of a prenup are about nondisclosure about all the family trusts and things,” he said. “They’ve got that all lined up before you fall in love.”

At the same time, lawyers point out that the issues that cause friction in the average divorce are completely absent for the stratospherically wealthy.

“It’s almost easier to settle a case like this, if the parties are inclined to do so, than it is to settle a case where people live comfortably, but don’t have enough to live comfortably once they split everything in half,” Mr. Aronson said. “For these people, it will only change to the extent of how many billions of dollars they can give away to whatever they want.”

A Secretively Managed Fortune

At the center of both the Gates fortune and the Gates Foundation endowment is a little-known entity called Cascade Investment. Based in Kirkland, Wash., and run by Michael Larson, a former bond fund manager for Putnam Investments, Cascade has overseen both the endowment and most of the personal wealth of Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates for decades.

Mr. Gates began reducing his stake in Microsoft beginning with the initial public offering in 1986, when he owned 45 percent of the company, a stake worth $350 million at the time. Today, he has an estimated net worth of $124 billion, according to Forbes, or $146 billion, according to the research firm Wealth-X. Including the Gates Foundation’s endowment and the Gates personal fortune, Cascade most likely oversees assets that put it on par or beyond some of the world’s biggest hedge funds in size.

Mr. Larson operates Cascade with an obsessive level of secrecy, going to great lengths to cloak the firm’s transactions so that they can’t easily be traced back to the Gateses. In a 1999 interview with Fortune magazine, Mr. Larson said he chose the name “Cascade” because it was a generic-sounding name in the Pacific Northwest.

Mr. Larson’s wealth-management strategy is grounded in value investing — a long-term approach to finding solid, underpriced stocks. This approach is often associated with Warren E. Buffett, who is a close friend of Mr. Gates. Mr. Larson focuses on buying and holding brick-and-mortar companies rather than high-growth technology stocks. (Mr. Gates chooses his tech investments and holds them outside Cascade.)

That strategy pays off for foundations and family wealth, both of which tend to focus on wealth preservation rather than making risky bets.

“He has delivered the best possible outcome for decades, with absolute discretion,” said Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley investor who helped found the private-equity firm Elevation Partners and has worked with Mr. Larson in the past.

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