Inside America’s Billionaire Families

How did the country's wealthiest families make their money? Learn about the often-humble origins of America's most successful entrepreneurs--and read the juicy details about their family secrets and scandals.

The United States of America was built on the principle that anyone, no matter how humble their beginnings, could find an opportunity to better his or her life. After all, our ancestors didn’t fight in the Revolutionary War just to install a system of hereditary wealth like the one they left behind in England… right?

The truth is a little more complicated. While popular culture insists that the Kennedys were the closest thing Americans have ever had to a royal family, there are a surprising number of billionaire dynasties in the US. These families have spent generations growing their wealth and influence. How did these people first make their money? And what are the most recent scions of America’s billionaire dynasties doing now?

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The Waltons


Chances are very good that you’ve personally put a few dollars in the pockets of the Waltons. That’s because this family owns both Walmart and Sam’s Club. Sam Walton founded Walmart, originally called Wal-Mart Discount City, in 1962. Since then, it has grown into one of the world’s biggest businesses—and the Waltons have grown to become America’s wealthiest family. In fact, they’re the richest family in the world, according to Investopedia, with a combined net worth of $224.5 billion.

Currently, Sam Walton’s two surviving children, alongside the widow of his late son, hold the majority of the family’s wealth. The oldest son, S. Robson Walton, who goes by Rob, is currently 78. He served as the chairman of Walmart from 1992 until 2015, and his personal fortune is estimated to be $61 billion. Oh, and he owns the Denver Broncos, too. Alice Walton, 73, has an estimated net worth of $59 billion. Their brother John T. Walton passed away in a plane crash at the age of 58 in 2005, but his widow, Christy, inherited his stake in Walmart.

The Rockefellers

John D. Rockefeller in 1909 portrait by Lawrence P. Ames, N.Y.

The Rockefeller name is such an important part of American history that it’s almost strange to think of the family as real people. Unlike the Vanderbilts, who managed to squander their wealth just fifty years after patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt passed away, the Rockefellers have managed to hang onto their legacy and their cash.  

John D. Rockefeller—known as America’s first billionaire—made most of his fortune through Standard Oil, along with Chase Bank and vast real estate holdings. Without this family, we wouldn’t have Rockefeller Center, the Museum of Modern Art, the Cloisters, or the Lincoln Center in New York City, as well as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Seven generations later and with an estimated 170 heirs, the Rockefeller clan can claim an estimated $11 billion. According to David Rockefeller Jr., the family “developed a system of values, traditions, and institutions that have helped the family stay together and preserve their wealth.”

The Marriotts

Marriott timeshare resort

Even if you’ve never stayed in a Marriott hotel, you’re certainly familiar with the brand. But the brand is much bigger than you might realize. In addition to the hotels that bear the founder’s name, Marriott International also owns:

  • The Ritz-Carlton
  • W Hotels
  • Sheraton
  • Westin Hotels
  • Renaissance Hotels
  • Aloft Hotels

J. Willard Marriott grew up in Utah on his family’s farm, which grew sugar beets and raised sheep. After working his way through college, Marriott secured a franchise deal to sell A&W Root Beer in Washington, D.C. That decision would lead him into the hospitality industry, initially by opening several chains of restaurants across the country and managing the cafeteria at the U.S. Treasury during the 1920s. It wasn’t until 1957 that Marriott got into the hotel business, and the rest is history.

Unlike many of the titans of industry on this list, Marriott gave full credit to the help of his wife, Alice Sheets Marriott, in growing his business empire. Their son, Bill Marriott, has been leading the company for the past 60 years.

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The Lauders

HONG KONG - JANUARY 26, 2016: Estee Lauder cosmetics store at Elements Shopping Mall. Elements is a large shopping mall located on 1 Austin Road West, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong

Let’s hear it for the ladies! There are few success stories featuring female entrepreneurs—and even fewer that see those entrepreneurs reaching billionaire dynasty status. That’s what makes Estée Lauder so special. She founded her beauty company in 1946 with the help of her husband, Joseph. According to the company’s website, “Ahead of her time in every way, Estée Lauder defied conventions, and her fearless persistence set the tone for the family business.”

The couple’s sons, Leonard and Ronald, took over the reins of the company, and Estée Lauder’s grandchildren—William, Aerin, and Jane—are all actively engaged in the company. Collectively, the family is worth about $33 billion. Much of that wealth is based on Lauder’s “free gift with purchase” sales technique, which has since become an annual staple for not just the company she founded but almost every beauty brand as well. There are plenty of stories about Lauder’s fearlessness in pursuing her goals, including stopping wealthy women on the streets of New York’s ritziest neighborhoods to convince them to try her beauty products.

The Gallos

Cluster of grapes in Virginia vineyard ripening as harvest approaches

The Gallo family fortune is built on one thing: wine. Brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo founded a winery in California in 1933. These days, E&J Gallo Winery is the biggest winemaker in the world.

Family can be complicated. Things get even more complicated when this much money is involved. Ernest and Julio were interested in wine, but their brother, Joseph, wanted to make cheese. He used the Gallo name for his cheese business; after all, it was his name, too! But the brothers ended up in a bitter legal battle during the 1980s that resulted in Joseph losing the rights to the Gallo name. It’s even more tragic when you know that the elder brothers raised teenage Joseph after their parents died in an act of shocking violence.

Ernest Gallo named the company’s most popular products, a line of bargain-priced box wines, after his wife’s maiden name: Franzia.

The Hearsts

LOS ANGELES - MAY 2: Lydia Hearst at the Jaguar North America and Britweek Present "A Villainous Affair" at London Hotel on May 2, 2014 in West Hollywood, CA

The Hearst family is one of the most glamorous—but also the most scandalous—families on our list. Despite dramatic ups and downs over the decades, the remaining Hearsts have an estimated fortune of $21 billion. William Randolph Hearst started life as an ambitious newspaper editor who founded the San Francisco Examiner in 1887 before building a news empire. He would later become a congressman, build an eccentric castle on the California coast, and lose almost all of his money in the Great Depression. He lived such a big life that it served as the inspiration for the Orson Welles film Citizen Kane—though “rosebud” was totally made up for the movie.

Hearst Communications eventually recovered and became a global media powerhouse, but in 1974, the family would endure its biggest scandal. That was the year teenage Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, which held her for ransom and then used brainwashing techniques to induce what we now recognize as Stockholm Syndrome. However, when she was caught participating in an armed bank robbery alongside the SLA, the media her grandfather helped to create tore her to shreds. She served two years in prison before having her sentence commuted by President Carter. She was later pardoned by President Clinton. Patty’s daughter Lydia Hearst, pictured above, is a model and actress.

The Cathys

Dayton, OH- Mar 16, 2020; chick fil a box with other food items in background. Boxes and bags of trash following meal. Reflection on wooden table

Chick-fil-A is one of the most popular fast-food chains in the country, but unlike many other franchises, control of the company remains with the family that founded it. The Cathy family is worth a collective $14.2 billion and counting, according to Insider.

S. Truett Cathy opened his first restaurant in 1946, but it wasn’t until 1967 that he launched Chick-fil-A. The company now operates almost 3,000 locations and has a presence in every state except Vermont and Alaska. That’s not much compared to the nearly 14,000 McDonald’s in the US, but the Cathy family has been smart about expanding the franchise just enough to meet the demand for chicken sandwiches. It’s the most profitable per-location fast food restaurant. Brothers Dan and Bubba run the company after their father left it to them following his death in 2014. Their sister, Trudy, grew up working at Chick-fil-A and is now a motivational speaker and author.

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