Randall Thatcher was a gofer -- fetching dry cleaning for a boss he loathed -- when he received his first stock options.
The year was 1987, the company was Microsoft Corp., and Thatcher, a 28-year-old marketing assistant, had no idea what a stock option was. It grants a right to buy stock at a fixed price over a limited time. If the market price soars during that time, a few thousand options can turn into tons of money.
Thatcher also didn't know that Microsoft's president, Bill Gates, was offering options to all full-time employees, even seething, ill-informed gofers.
"I was so indignant about my job, I was going to quit," Thatcher said. "I guess it's lucky I didn't."
By swallowing his pride, tossing his options statements in a desk drawer and soldiering on at Microsoft for 10 more years, Thatcher joined one of the iconic clubs of the 20th century. He became a Microsoft millionaire and retired at 38.
He lives now in downtown Seattle on the top floor of a building with splendid views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. He takes daily banjo lessons, does office work for his church and leads children on tours of a local park. Whenever he and his wife, Shari, feel like it, they catch an afternoon movie. They meet quarterly with financial advisers and expect never to work again.
American history is defined, in part, by the trials and triumphs of its young people. In the Great Depression, a quarter-million teenage hobos rode freight trains and scratched for jobs. In the '60s, student protesters shut universities and speeded the end of a hated war. In the high-tech boom of the 1990s, legions of geeks and their support staff wandered into wealth.
Arguably, the largest single legion served its time -- and secured its fortune -- in the eastern suburbs of Seattle. That's where an estimated 10,000 Microsoft employees became millionaires during the era of options.
For Microsoft, that era formally ends in September, when the company stops issuing options to employees. The de facto end, however, came three years ago, when Microsoft's stock price tumbled. Options issued since then are all but worthless.
Yet as options recede into history, the wealth that they rained on Seattle continues to percolate -- in the lives of Microsofties who are still learning how to be rich and in the character of this city where much of the money is still being spent, invested and given away.
Like Nothing Before
How much money are we talking here?
All told, about $30 billion in options on software company stock -- nearly all of it from Microsoft -- were exercised in greater Seattle between 1995 and 2002, according to Roberta Pauer, an economist for the Washington State Employment Security Department.
If $30 billion were distributed evenly to the 3.3 million people in the Puget Sound area, it would come to nearly $10,000 each. Nearly all of it, though, went to the people employed full time by Microsoft in the late 1990s.
Keep in mind, this is option money only. Gates, the world's richest man (with $40 billion), never received options. Neither did Microsoft's co-founder, Paul G. Allen, the fourth-richest man (with $20.1 billion), or Microsoft's chief executive, Steven A. Ballmer, the 16th-richest man ($11.1 billion), according to Forbes. Their wealth is based on the actual shares of stock they own in the company.
In Seattle, option wealth alone was plenty to pack a destabilizing wallop.
"It knocked our economy out of kilter," Pauer said. "You got really high levels of consumer spending -- houses, cars, boats -- that were not sustainable. You got all kind of investments that were predicated on a fantasy that this flow of money would go on forever."
To understand the kilter-knocking power of option money here, consider what happened in 1999:
It was the year before the high-tech bubble burst. Across the country, investors were somewhat dementedly bidding up Microsoft stock, engorging the already swollen profits of option holders. The stock price spiked to its all-time, split-adjusted high of $59.56. (The stock was worth 10 cents on that basis when the company went public in 1986.)
Before the year ended, about 8,000 Microsoft workers cashed in options worth about $8 billion -- for an average payout of $1 million each, according to Dick Conway, a Seattle economist who consults for Microsoft.
That was 150 percent of the total annual payroll for the 99,000 employees then working at Boeing Co., the largest employer in Washington state.
"Nothing like this has happened before, and it will probably never happen again," Conway said.
A Microsoft spokesman declined to comment on Conway's estimates, although the economist said he has run them by company officials and was told they sound reasonable.
In announcing this month that it will stop issuing options, Microsoft addressed what has become a major irritant for employees hired after the boom. Their options are worthless and, unlike their veteran colleagues, they have had little chance of getting rich. The company will soon issue restricted stock to its 50,000 employees worldwide. Those shares can be sold in the future if employees stay at Microsoft.
Infected by Wealth
Beginning in the mid-1990s, as Microsoft employees cashed out more and more options, greater Seattle went into a delirium of high-end consumption.
Workmen invaded city neighborhoods, gutting and rebuilding thousands of old houses that offered views of water or mountains. In the eastern suburbs, monstrous new homes -- Microsoft mansions -- encircled lakes and marched into the foothills of the Cascades.
Suddenly, there were waiting lists for yachts, Ferraris and Steinway pianos. Newly purchased horses far outnumbered stalls in local stables. Soaring new-car sales merged with 15 percent population growth to create traffic congestion that ranked among the worst in the nation. Seattle rose to No. 2, after Silicon Valley, in venture capital investment. Much of the money went to dot-com companies that went broke. The number of mental health counselors jumped by 55 percent, according to the state health department.
As wealth infected the polity, voters launched Seattle on its largest-ever public building spree: two sports stadiums, a city hall, an opera house, libraries, fire stations, schools, parks, community centers and housing for the elderly.
"There has never been a convergence of people and discretionary money in this region quite like it," said Lee Huntsman, provost and interim president at the University of Washington, which is in Seattle and has luxuriated in $284 million in donations from Microsoft, its executives, its employees and its investors since 1990.
When Microsoft options went underwater in 2000, however, so did the local economy. Seattle and Washington state sank into recession in early 2001, three months ahead of the rest of the nation. Even now, 21/2 years later, the economy still shows few signs of recovery. The state unemployment rate in June was 7.7 percent, third highest in the country.
Playing the Numbers
During the boom, nearly every full-time Microsoft employee set up a computer spreadsheet that, with the touch of one key, displayed a real-time accounting of his stock-option fortune.
Many employees fantasized about their "number" -- a hypothetical stock price that would make them forever rich.
"When I hit my number, there was this euphoria," remembered Randall Thatcher, who had risen in the company to a travel-weary international marketing manager. "We had more money than we ever thought we would have in our life."
Thatcher quit in 1997, as soon as his last options vested. (If he'd stayed another two years, he said with a deep sigh, he would have tripled his fortune.)
With his wife, he took off and traveled around the world for a year. During that trip, which included a long stay in Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world, Thatcher was often blue.
"It was hard to reconcile the inequity of having tons of money and walking through squalor," he said.
Like Thatcher, a middle-class Mormon from the suburbs of Salt Lake City, most employees at Microsoft grew up as distant strangers to serious money. They tended to be bright, hard working and goal oriented, but when they suddenly got rich, many of them became disoriented.
Local psychologists who have treated some of these people say it was -- and is -- common for them to be suspicious in relationships, fearing that they are being loved for their money. They sometimes also lord their wealth over lovers, relatives and friends.
"The moneyed partner can develop a sense of entitlement," said a psychologist in Seattle. "They don't have to treat others as well or as politely as they are treated. The money gets others to put up with them."
There have been no systematic studies of how wealth has affected the options generation at Microsoft. But Stephen Goldbart, a San Francisco psychologist, has been treating and conducting seminars for thousands of the high-tech rich for eight years. He is co-founder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute, which coined the term "sudden wealth syndrome" and has worked with many people from Microsoft.
"Money creates all kinds of challenges for these people with their parents, siblings and friends," Goldbart said. "Many techies are not used to this emotional stuff, and it causes many of them to withdraw. They say, 'I'll just stay away from people.' " Typically, he said, these people go through a "fun and games period," a year or so of buying big-ticket toys and taking fancy vacations. Some people, he added, never move beyond narcissistic self-involvement with their money, but most do.
Here in Seattle, an organization created by the newly rich, called Social Venture Partners, has worked with hundreds of Microsoft people, teaching them how to give away money and sort out their values.
Each member commits to a minimum annual contribution of $5,500 for at least two years to join, and the organization strongly encourages members to work long hours with small local charities. Social Venture Partners is sometimes described as post-graduate training in philanthropy.
"Things and money can come to define you, even if you don't want it to happen," said Paul Shoemaker, executive director of the group and a former Microsoft employee who says he got semi-rich on options. "It takes a conscious choice to keep your feet on the ground."
Shoemaker said that most of the people who come to Social Venture Partners are worth between $5 million and $15 million.
Defined by Money
Even before he cashed out his Microsoft options in 2001, Gideon Rosenblatt felt himself sinking into a world defined by his money and what it could buy.
"We bought a big house in the suburbs and started a big remodeling process," said Rosenblatt, who met his wife, C.J., when they were both working at Microsoft. "We got pulled in by what we saw some of our friends doing."
Rosenblatt and his wife -- they have two boys, ages 4 and 2 -- became increasingly uncomfortable as their bank account grew.
"We felt like this money was an incredible gift -- a really weird historical anomaly -- and we didn't want to be stupid and squander it," said Rosenblatt, 40, who started at Microsoft in 1991.
Having sorted out what he wanted from his money, Rosenblatt quit his Microsoft job. At a drastically lower salary, he became executive director of One/Northwest, a nonprofit online networking group that links together 60,000 environmental activists in the region.
As for the suburban house, he and his wife decided they had better things to do than to make design decisions about how to maximize their views of Puget Sound. So, they sold the big house at a loss and bought a 2,000-square-foot, viewless house in a middle-class Seattle neighborhood. "We decided our top job was raising two great kids," Rosenblatt said.
He and his wife met with financial advisers and spent many hours writing a family credo -- a one-page set of "Rosenblatt family values." It does not say a single word about money. Instead, it talks about "hard work," "passion" and "leaving the world a better place than you found it."
To that end, Rosenblatt said he and his wife have decided to limit their sons' inheritance. The couple is now deciding how much to give to philanthropy and how much to leave for their sons.
"We definitely want our kids to work and not just at a dilettante level," he said. "We want them to have to struggle."
Like nearly everyone interviewed for this story, Rosenblatt said that in trying to understand his own values, Bill Gates has been an inspiring role model. Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with assets of $24 billion, Gates is giving away hundreds of millions of dollars a year to improve health conditions in the developing world.
"I respect him and his discipline about philanthropy," Rosenblatt said.
There is no way of knowing exactly how much money Microsoft millionaires are giving away. But there are many indications that it is a lot. Since the late 1990s, per-capita giving to greater Seattle's United Way campaign has led the nation. In a 2001 ranking of all American cities, Seattle ranked a close second, behind New York, in total annual contributions to the United Way.
C.J. Rosenblatt, incidentally, still works part time in the marketing department at Microsoft.
In the post-boom argot of company veterans, she is a "volunteer," which is to say that her salary is not the point.
"I think of working at Microsoft now as my nonprofit," said C.J., who adds that she will sort out a more appropriate philanthropy when her sons get a little older. "It is the stuff I do so my brain doesn't develop cobwebs."
Randall Thatcher said he would go back to work, but only if he absolutely had no choice.
Since he left Microsoft, he and his wife have been careful not to overspend. They left the company with a smaller nest egg than many early retirees -- they say it is about $2 million. They own one car, a hot-pink 1979 Volkswagen beetle. He rarely buys new clothes and gets around town on a 1956 Vespa.
"We are not crazy, mad rich," Shari Thatcher said. "We are beer-and-pretzels rich."
Their friends, particularly people still working at Microsoft, sometimes ask them if they are bored. They say no, but they do worry.
"You hope, with all the discretionary time, that you don't completely waste it," Randall Thatcher said. "Some days I do. Most days I don't."