‘I learned to make money while I slept’: Don Barden built a $500 million business starting with $500 in savings

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 17, 2024 10:40 PM EDT
Don Barden. Photo credit: Las Vegas Review-Journal

Don Barden‘s rise to the top is a true grass-to-grace story. Beginning with a record label and newspaper, he developed the largest Black cable television operator. Barden was the first African-American to own a casino in the nation’s gaming capital of Las Vegas which posted revenues of more than $500 million. But it all began with $500 in savings.

“I’m on a mission to prove that a poor, young African-American from a very large family, from humble beginnings, can rise to the top in America in a free enterprise system. I think it’s a natural progression, just to show that there is no limit, you can go to the stratosphere, you can go beyond the imagination, you can go beyond the ordinary wealth of an athlete. It’s bragging rights. It’s prestige. We’ll become role models for young people,” Barden told the Las Vegas Sun in 1997.

The ninth of 13 children, Barden was born on a farm in Detroit, Michigan. He credited growing up poor and his parents for his strong work ethic. By high school, Barden was captain of both the basketball and football teams. He developed the determination, persistence, and intensity to succeed at 18 while rebuilding auto parts. He noticed that the store owner was up at the front counter making all the money while he was in the back doing all the hard work. Barden was motivated to try to be successful with his own business.

He scrapped together money and attended Central State University in Ohio. Unfortunately, the money ran out and he had to drop out after one year. Barden took on a series of odd jobs, ranging from being a mover, and plumbing and a heating company laborer to working as a short-order cook. He was steadily putting cash aside to prepare for his future.

With $500 he’d saved up, Barden bought a small record store in Lorain, Ohio to take advantage of the emerging music scene in the mid-1960s. The 22-year-old began booking bands for concerts, started a weekly newspaper a year later, and expanded to advertising and public relations in 1968. Nonetheless, Barden felt he wasn’t earning enough. He decided to move into real estate development, buying up buildings and leasing them to the US Government.

When Barden learned military recruiters were looking for office space, he took out a mortgage on his home and bought a building for $25,000 in 1972. He remodeled it, rented it to the military, and was clearing $200 a month. He sold the building for $50,000 two years later. To consolidate his status as a real estate owner, he went on to buy an $85,000 building, put up a $1 million building and another $3.1 million building.

Apart from his business ventures, Barden joined the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce and was elected to a city council seat, He also hosted a weekly TV news program for a decade.

By the 1980s, Barden had established an entrepreneurial blueprint. He would move swiftly from enterprise to enterprise, using capital from one venture to finance the next and quickly seeing the profits. He saw the opportunities in cable TV and once again began his investment pattern. In 1979, he established Barden Cablevision with earnings he gained in Ohio real estate. Barden invested $2,000 each in two cable franchises, earning $400,000 in profits when he sold a few years later.

“I have learned to look for businesses that make money while I sleep. I like to acquire any business that doesn’t require an exorbitant amount of time and capital to turn it around. Yet, I want to be able to expand the core businesses. I have been able to do that with real estate, cable, and gaming. If you find viable businesses with solid management, you are not drained by the day-to-day operations. You can scope out other opportunities,” Barden said about his business philosophy.

Barden put almost all his money on the line trying to win the Detroit cable franchise. Although he was scared, the risk ultimately paid off. He signed up over 100,000 customers (one-third of the homes in Detroit) and developed the largest Black cable television operator. In 1994, Barden cashed in $115 million when he finished selling his cable interests. He was finally in the big leagues.

After Indiana legalized casinos in 1993, Barden saw possibilities of yet another venture. He was winding down his cable interests and decided to pursue the casino industry due to its similarities to cable. Barden out-competed 20 casino applicants to win one of two riverboat gaming licenses. The casinos were generating $53 million in revenues within six months of opening. In the meantime, Barden set his sights on a far bigger prize.

In 2002, Barden successfully bid for three Fitzgeralds casinos that had recently filed for bankruptcy. He managed to borrow $135 million, put up $14 million of his own cash and bought the casinos for $149 million. Barden consequently became the first African American to wholly own a casino in Las Vegas, the nation’s gambling capital. His casino empire employed 4,000 people and had an annual turnover of $347 million at its height. Barden guided his company and its affiliates to revenues of over $519 million, making his empire one of the largest African-American-owned businesses in the country.

Barden passed away in 2011 at age 67 after several months of battling lung and brain cancer. He left behind a shining legacy of how far determination and vision can carry a person.