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McAfee’s Unusual Gospel of Wealth Led Him to Belize

John McAfee | Facebook

One reason John McAfee moved to Belize was his view of American wealth.

The tech tycoon, who all but invented the computer security industry with his anti-virus software and is now on the run in Belize after being sought for questioning in a murder, moved to the tiny Central American country to escape what he saw as an over-materialistic and over-regulated culture of wealth in America.

It all started in the mid-2000s, when his tech fortune topped $100 million.

He built a mansion in Colorado, a sprawling ranch in New Mexico, and had homes in Utah and California – not to mention countless real-estate holdings that were investments. He had a private jet along with a fleet of other hobby planes. He started collecting antiques and art.

But in 2008, when the housing market crashed along with financial markets, McAfee's fortune evaporated. The value of this real estate plunged. His financial investments, some of which were tied to Lehman Brothers, also tanked.

By 2009, his $100 million fortune had shrunk to around $4 million, and he was auctioning off properties to the highest bidders. He gave lots of his other material goods to charity. (Read more: Millionaires' Charitable Giving Averages Nine Percent of Income)

After his crash, McAfee became a born-again anti-materialist.

"Stuff by itself has little value," he told me in 2010, in an interview recounted in "The High-Beta Rich."

He said he rarely visited the houses he owned, or enjoyed the things he bought. The more he bought, in fact, the less he enjoyed his bounty. Each successive purchase needed to be larger than the last to excite him – and soon it all became just "stuff."

He said the "pursuit of things" distracted him from his real joy in life, which was creating companies. He told me that too many entrepreneurs in America are just in it for the wealth, not for creating something of lasting value.

"We have over time equated entrepreneurialism with the drive to accumulate wealth," he said. "It's a perversion of values."

Of course, it's easy for someone who's lost most of their material things to become anti-materialistic. (Read more: Former Citi CEO Says 'Simpler Is Better')

Yet moving to the jungles of Belize was both an escape and a return to his roots. He said that in Belize's lax regulatory regime, starting companies was easy. He was launching a drug company to make vaccines from jungle plants. And he had launched a ferry business.

Sitting in his bedroom overlooking the jungle and a waterfall, he said, "I have all I need right here. I don't need much really."

Now, the nature of that drug company, his guns, and his unleashed "Heart of Darkness" lifestyle is being viewed through a much darker lens. He is wanted for questioning in the murder of his neighbor, who had been in a dispute with McAfee. He has told CNBC that he had nothing to do with the murder, though he remains on the run, moving every four hours. He said he fears for his life if the police catch him and has told business associates that the police are out to get him for money and political revenge.

However this odd case turns out, McAfee's Gospel of Wealth – and the path that all that wealth can lead to – is worth remembering.

-By CNBC's Robert Frank
Follow Robert Frank on Twitter:
@robtfrank

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  • A reporter and editor, Robert Frank is a leading authority on the American wealthy for CNBC.