David Gilmour (David Yellen For Forbes)It’s a $20 million view overlooking Central Park from a 42nd-floor apartment in the Trump International building. But after 18 years David Gilmour is willing to give it up. Movers have crated the Ming dynasty furniture and sculpture and the Thai and Burmese Buddhas. Having logged 7 million air and sea miles to found nearly a dozen companies–a stereo maker, resorts, a gold mine, bottled water–he knows when it’s time to pack up and go.
Now 81, Gilmour insists he’s been trying to retire for more than four decades. When at the helm of Southern Pacific Resorts, he bet a friend a case of Chateau Lafite he’d hang it up by age 40. He lost; opportunities kept coming. “None of my startups were really based on a game of searching for something to do,” says Gilmour, who now splits his time among New York, L.A., Europe, Palm Beach and his private Fijian island, Wakaya. “I’ve never said, ‘I’ve got nothing on my plate.’ The plate has always come to me.”
His latest dish is Wakaya Perfection, a ginger powder made from roots grown on his 2,220-acre island in Fiji, once owned by Gilmour’s hotel chain. While careful to avoid any over-the-top medicinal claims, Gilmour says he puts the powder on lots of his food, dissolves it in drinks, bathes in it and rubs it on his face and sore muscles. You’re half-tempted to believe that’s why he looks 20 years younger than he is.
But the real secret seems to lie in being an entrepreneurial repeat offender. “David loves the thrill,” says fellow Canadian and centimillionaire Peter Munk, 85, chairman of Barrick Gold. “Running businesses, you’re continuously exposed to new problems to solve and to new people who, at their worst, are stimulating and at their best you learn an awful lot from. How else can you get that in your 80s?” Says Gilmour: “I get the vision and passion for the next project. It must see the light of day. That’s really it.”
It started early, in wanderlust. His successful financier father and opera singer mother offered to send him to Europe over eight summers during high school and college but with a catch: You get $10 a day but have to travel alone. “I could observe what cars people drove, how they dressed and behaved,” Gilmour recalls. “Suddenly you just catch the mood of what people may want that they don’t yet know they want.”
After college he sold pots and pans door-to-door, offering to cook meals for families to show off his wares. Next, he worked at Dansk Design, importing the modern Scandinavian home furnishings he’d fallen in love with on his travels. That’s when he met Munk, a young electrical engineer who chatted up Gilmour’s date at a Toronto restaurant–and launched a friendship and various partnerships that have spanned 55 years.
In 1958 they started Clairtone, which made hi-fi systems that looked more like furniture than stereos. Munk, a Hungarian immigrant, built the electronic guts, while Gilmour designed the handsome wood exteriors. Soon their $500 Clairtone systems were in the living rooms of the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Hugh Hefner. After taking Clairtone public in 1962, they partnered with the Canadian government, which, in a well-intentioned but fatal move to create jobs, moved manufacturing to Nova Scotia. Five years later Clairtone was shuttered.
Broke but not broken, Munk and Gilmour cofounded South Pacific Hotels in 1969, riding an updraft in international air travel. They found investors, bought plots and opened resorts–using cash flow to buy more land. By the time they sold out for roughly $150 million in 1980, they’d amassed 56 properties.
Gilmour and Munk plowed their winnings into a mine in northern Ontario that became Barrick Gold. It was 1979, and gold prices, fanned by inflation, more than doubled. While Munk worked the numbers, Gilmour persuaded small independent miners to sell. Today, with a market cap of $32.5 billion, Barrick is the world’s largest gold miner–and Gilmour’s biggest moneymaker. It also seems to be the one he cares least about. “When it came to building mass upon mass, it was a big yawn,” he says. “That’s why I went off and did my own things.”
Like Fiji Water. The idea hit him on a golf course in Fiji after he watched a player pull out a bottle of Evian. “I thought, ‘My God, they’ve come 10,000 miles to the middle of the most pristine environment and they’re drinking water from a heavily industrialized continent.’?” Gilmour researched local aquifers, invested a few million dollars, started drilling and launched the company in 1996. Soon he was waist-deep in every detail of the company. He recruited the executives, designed the bottles and went on sales calls: “I rode in distributors’ trucks, Schweppes and Coca-Cola trucks,” Gilmour recalls with a laugh. “I would have my knees under my chin in a mini car training a salesperson.”
Loath to spend big on advertising, Gilmour tried product placement. He used his Hollywood connections to get his water onto movie sets. Before long the distinctively square bottles found their way into films like The Thomas Crown Affair .
Within five years Fiji was the top imported water in the U.S., selling 7 million cases a year. Success brought loud criticism that the company was denying locals a key natural resource and committing environmental depredation by shipping bottled water halfway across the globe. Gilmour counters that he made the best water in the world more available–and brought in much-needed resources to fund hospitals and schools, as well as jump-start Fiji tourism. In 2004 he sold the company to billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick for an undisclosed sum, reportedly around $50 million.
Gilmour discovered that Wakaya ginger grew well in the fertile volcanic soil near his house. He remembered how his mother wouldn’t sing without first sipping ginger tea, then researched its potential to fight nausea, muscle pain, indigestion and skin aging. And out of “retirement” he came.
Wakaya Perfection, his powdered ginger, is on sale online–at caviar prices (a 0.6-ounce square jar costs $24). Gilmour says his marketing strategy, launching next year, will make the brand a household name. How? He isn’t saying. “No one can promote like David,” says Munk. “You listen to him about his ginger from Wakaya, you’d think ginger didn’t exist before.”
This, he says, will be his last startup. “That’s my legacy. After that I’ll powder myself and be poured all over the island.” We’ll see about that.
(Follow me on Twitter at @StevenBertoni)
Also on Forbes:
see photosBloomberg via Getty Images
Click for full photo gallery: The Ten Best Serial Entrepreneurs You’ve Never Heard Of