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An Orman Never Gives Up

April 11, 2012

How Suze Orman triumphed over adversity, created an iconic personal brand and remains atop the personal-finance heap

Suze Orman

When Suze Orman grew up on the rough-and-tumble South Side of Chicago, she drew strength from a family credo: “An Orman never gives up.”

In every phase of her life and career, Orman has personified true grit. Perseverance is the quality that, more than anything else, has enabled her to become the most successful personal-finance guru in America, build a multiplatform brand for herself and achieve the elusive quality of longevity.

Call Orman’s strength good old-fashioned tenacity or the will to win. Whatever you want to label that quality, it has enabled her to stay atop the heap when it comes to the multitudes of pundits who offer personal-finance advice to “the little guy” on Main Street. She has flourished as a dedicated entrepreneur, a popular figure on television and a thoroughly inspiring teacher to millions of her fans.

But Orman prefers to view her accomplishments in a way that doesn’t involve money or fame. She believes that she has achieved her success because she has an unflagging self-belief, and this gives her the inner strength to fend off her critics as well. Orman views the concept of success as something everyone can enjoy, regardless of bank account or status in society.

“Success comes when you can look in the mirror and you like what’s looking back,” Orman says. “You’re proud of what you’ve created. You’re proud of what you’re doing, even if it doesn’t give you a financial reward and nobody buys it. You’re proud of yourself.”

It’s hardly a coincidence that one of her biggest heroes is none other than Oprah Winfrey, whom Orman admires for her “tremendous sense of humanity.” Orman, with her strong but soothing style of communicating financial ideas, does for her fans’ financial needs what Winfrey offers people to make better choices about their relationships. Orman learned from the best, clearly, because she sometimes sounds just like Winfrey.

“True success is a smile,” Orman says philosophically. “It’s a smile in your heart because you feel like your life is complete. Then you’re successful. It’s not gauged by how much money you have. Look at Bernie Madoff. He was seriously considered a success by so many—even when he was hurting so many.”

If you think that Orman is little more than a trader in shopworn platitudes, you’d be selling her short and diminishing the acumen of her audience. By maintaining her credibility over the years and shrewdly diversifying her methods of communication, Suze has assembled a potent Orman Inc.

Her cable television program The Suze Orman Show has been one of CNBC’s highest-rated offerings of the decade. She has penned nine consecutive New York Times best-sellers, while writing, co-producing and hosting seven Public Broadcasting Service specials based on her popular books. The PBS shows have garnered two Emmys and are typically highly successful fundraising vehicles. Orman has become a fixture in popular culture as well. She has appeared as a guest on TV shows ranging from Piers Morgan’s prime-time chat show to Bill Maher’s popular program on HBO. In a sure sign that Orman has become an icon, Saturday Night Live has spoofed her five times, lampooning her cheerfulness and effervescence.

What the satirists—and many of her critics—miss, however, is the essence of what makes her so successful. Strangers swear by Orman’s advice, and not necessarily because she is the “smartest” financial expert on the tube. But she is the one they invariably turn to for counsel because they trust her to have their backs. They sense that she cares about them. They believe that Orman is more than a financial planner or a broker you go to see in an office. She is a loyal friend who appears in their living rooms. Orman is neither a Pollyanna nor a doomsayer. She is a pragmatist. She tells people the truth, what they need to hear but not always what they want to hear. In an era when flimflam artists abound, people respect Orman, and more important, they know that she is on their side.

I acquired an appreciation for this trait when I was about to leave Orman’s home after our two-hour conversation on a frigid day in January. She eyed me with genuine concern as I was packing up my stuff and putting on my gloves and scarf.

“Don’t you have a hat?” she asked me. “Are you going to be warm enough? I hope you don’t have far to go now.”

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