When Bethenny Frankel first bought Amazon shares, the company was nothing. But her gut said it was going to be big, so she bought in. That’s just one of her many, many business successes. On a recent visit to Auckland, Rebecca Stevenson tapped the Real Housewives of New York star for her top financial tips.
Spiky, funny, flawed and with a filthy mouth, Bethenny Frankel’s first foray into TV was as a contestant in The Apprentice: Martha Stewart in 2005.
She didn’t win the gig, but she parlayed the appearance into a broadcast career which has included Real Housewives of New York, two spinoffs (Bethenny Getting Married, Bethenny Ever After) and a talk show called, yep, Bethenny.
Frankel is now back on Real Housewives (the talk show was cancelled), and she’s also on a new show, Bethenny and Fredrik, where she and Million Dollar Listing New York realtor Fredrik Eklund renovate real estate in the Big Apple with the aim of making a juicy profit, cleverly combining two of the US network’s most ambitious and animated personalities for (hopefully) ratings gold.
The show also allows Frankel to show her work; she owns a number of properties as investments as part of a financial strategy to keep a roof over her head, but also to accumulate assets.
Because while Frankel is famed now for feisty retorts to taut-faced housewives, she’s a legit businesswoman with a number of companies under her belt and a knack for picking trends before they become mainstream. She founded Bethenny Bakes, a natural foods business (Frankel is also a chef); she imported and peddled pashminas for a time; and, most famously, she is the creator of the mega-successful Skinnygirl low-calorie alcohol brand (with a flagship margarita), which Frankel sold to Jim Beam maker Beam Suntory for a reported $100 million in 2011.
But, displaying her business acumen, when she cashed out of the alcohol business she held onto the Skinnygirl moniker – it’s now on organic sugar-substitutes and shapewear, among other products. “I own Skinnygirl, but Beam paid me all this money to use her,” she told The New Yorker. “I win.”
She’s the author of numerous self-help books, and millions of women around the world listen to her because she is herself, self-made. Frankel has a powerful, unapologetic message for working women – work your ass off, outwork everyone, trust your gut and if you have a strong opinion “stick with it”.
So what are her tips for financial success? Frankel says she’s getting back to business basics; but this may mean leaving Real Housewives of New York behind.
The Spinoff: You made serious money with Skinnygirl. Where did you first get capital for your businesses?
Bethenny Frankel: Well there were so many iterations. We had a wheat, egg and dairy-free bakery, a baked goods company long before it was cool to be gluten-free and dairy-free and all of that. I was an importer of pashminas long before pashmina was a thing. I used to produce events. For those different things I needed money along the way.
For this next iteration of fame I was on television and with the Skinnygirl idea – my part was marketing and the platform, and the partner that I ultimately found was to spend the money and be the operations person. But not having my own money to put into it meant there were limits in how much he could produce, because he didn’t have that much money.
Are you a saver? Are you a big spender? How do you manage your finances and make sure that you feel secure?
It’s evolved. When you first make money you’re conservative because you don’t know what could happen to you. You may not be able to write, you may not be able to be on TV, so you wanna think like that. And as you invest in bonds, and different stock portfolios, once you start to make money, then the pie changes, you’ve made so much of a profit. Then you can start being risky with some of it.
So it’s like going to a casino – once you are playing with the house’s money, you’re willing to be a little bit more risky. And then you have to go with your gut. I mean years ago I told my financial guy, “Amazon is going to take over the world.” Amazon was nothing. It was book. I said, “Amazon is going to take over the world.” And he didn’t buy as much as I wanted him to, and I always bring it up to him. We own a lot, but not a ton, because that was my gut.
I also use Twitter. If I use it, other people probably use it, it’s probably good, let’s buy that. I did very well on Twitter. But I don’t buy in what I don’t know. TJ Maxx is a retailer in the States that I like, so I said, “Let’s buy that.” Chipotle went down because of a scandal, I said, “Let’s buy that while it’s low”. I’m not a stock trader, but if I think about something, I do it. But ultimately I’m conservative.
Your new show is about flipping houses; how did you get your first home?
I went from broke to rich in a very short period of time and I was like, I have all this money, theoretically, in my mattress. So I need to do something with it, and I purchased a home, and I renovated it, and the idea of being able to custom-tailor something to your needs and add value to something with your ideas sounded really great to me.
That’s how I am in business, so it translated into renovations and real estate; that apartment was purchased for $5m dollars and sold for $7m in one day, all cash. And it was a major deal. Fredrik told me to price it at $6.5m and I pushed and pushed and said “no, it’s worth seven million”. So even if it’s not your business, if you have a strong opinion about something, you should stick with it.
What is it about real estate that appeals to you?
People often say, “oh, you should rent, because either the taxes, or it doesn’t pay in this market, or that the mortgage rate, or…”. But my opinion is own. I think that it’s not only a pride thing for people to own; if you own you will continue to increase the value. You will change the tile in the kitchen. You will upgrade appliances. You will take care of it in such a nice way. You will feel pride, and you will have an asset that no one can take away from you. And it’s not money in your bank account that you can spend.
So have you got any advice about absolute shockers – money that people shouldn’t spend on things in their homes when they’re renovating? Things they definitely should do?
The most value is to renovate but not make it taste-specific. So upgrade but in a way that it’s neutral tones, not unlike this carpet [she points to the beige carpet]. This could be for a man, a woman, a child; not to have important colourful details that you love but someone else might not like. You have to really think about it. This is a neutral wallpaper, but maybe your floral vases are pink and your pillows are bright because those you can take with you and they’re not expensive. It’s like accessorising.
And you want to invest in places that have good kitchens, bathrooms, and floors. You can change them, but it has to have good bones, good plumbing, the floor is not lopsided, we have to rip it out – you might just stain it, or buff it and polish it. So you want kitchens, bathrooms and floors to be intact. You don’t want the big expenses because you’re gonna have so many hidden costs, especially at the very end. When you finish, that’s when all the real costs come in. Ah, we forgot to do this knob, and the hood of the stove, and the air conditioning vent, and the toilet paper holder… All that nonsense adds up.
So how do you see then your business versus your TV life? Do you see them as helping each other?
They’re one thing. That’s the challenge of me being an entrepreneur because people don’t usually think about it this way. But I am the talent and the CEO. It is almost impossible.
Have you ever had a really tough moment where you just were really, really struggling?
I just had it on the show, it will be the end of this season of The Real Housewives of New York. I cracked in Colombia. I was doing five renovations, three television shows, running my business, being a mother – and I just cracked. I had to figure out a way to change my life. It’s hard to think that I’ve done that because right now, I’ve regressed a little while being here, but I made it that I would really focus on yoga, and drinking water, and saying no, and making trips like this also fun, and take care of myself, and even though this has been a very intense trip, I still am doing that, even on this trip.
What advice would give to a working mum who has a lot of things pulling at her, and on her time?
I think having kids makes you better at business because it makes you know how to prioritise and utilise your time, and you know where you’re supposed to be. You’re with your kids, have quality time with them, make it important, so you feel good, you’re not beating yourself up.
And then the other time is your time for work, and to make your mark in this world, and to jump off the page, you have to pivot. You have to make different types of moves and you have to be a strategic thinker. And not everyone’s an entrepreneur.
The problem is entrepreneurs are ultimately alone because no one can really tell you what you’re supposed to do. You’re alone. Everyone told me not to do The Apprentice. Everyone told me not to do Housewives. And I myself alone decided to do that. Everyone told me that the Skinnygirl Margarita was not going to happen, it wasn’t a good idea… I now am deciding where my mark is going to be on television. What shows am I going to do? Am I going to stay on Housewives? Am I going to do Shark Tank again? Am I going to add other shows? Am I going to produce a show? Am I going to get into this very risky controversial business that I’m thinking about getting into, which could go either way? You have to have balls, you have to make the decisions. No one’s gonna hold your hand.
So have you made the decision to stay on Real Housewives?
I have not made that decision. I may decide not to leave.
How close are you to making that decision?
Six months away.
Bethenny and Fredrik screens on Bravo on Monday nights at 8.30pm.
The Spinoff’s business section is enabled by our friends at Kiwibank. Kiwibank backs small to medium businesses, social enterprises and Kiwis who innovate to make good things happen.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.