by Geraldine Fabrikant
Monday, November 29, 2010
Nick Martin at the Highland Community College vineyard in Wamego, Kan., where he has taught winemaking since losing a fortune he got from the sale of the business his father founded. (Steve Hebert for The New York Times)
Grateful to have found work in this tough economy, Nick Martin teaches grape growing and winemaking each Saturday to a class of seven students in a simple metal building here at a satellite campus of Highland Community College. Then he drives 14 miles in an 11-year-old Ford Explorer to a sparsely furnished tract house that he rents for $900 a month on a dead-end street in McFarland, a smaller town. Just across the backyard is a shed that a neighbor uses to make cartridges for shooting the prairie dogs that infest the adjacent fields.
It is a far cry from the life that Mr. Martin and his family enjoyed until recently at their Adirondacks waterfront camp at Tupper Lake, N.Y. Their garage held three stylish cars, including a yellow Aston Martin; they owned three horses, one that cost $173,000; and Mr. Martin treated his wife, Kate, to a birthday weekend at the Waldorf-Astoria, with dinner at the "21" Club and a $7,000 mink coat.
That luxurious world was fueled by a check Mr. Martin received in 1998 for $14 million, his share of the $600 million sale of Martin Media, an outdoor advertising business begun by his father in California in the 1950s. After taxes, he kept about $10 million.
But as so often happens to those lucky enough to realize the American dream of sudden riches, the money slipped through the Martins' fingers faster than they ever imagined. They faced temptations to indulge, with the complexities and pressures of new wealth. And a pounding recession pummeled the value of their real estate and new financial investments, rendering their properties unaffordable. The fortune evaporated in little more than a decade.
While many millions of Americans have suffered through this recession with only unemployment benefits to sustain them, Mr. Martin has reason to give thanks — he has landed a job at 59, however far away. He also had assets to sell to help tide his family over. Still, Mr. Martin, a strapping man with a disarming bluntness, seemed dazed by it all. "We are basically broke," he said. Though he faulted the conventional wisdom of investing in stocks and real estate for some of his woes, along with poor financial advice, he accepted much of the blame himself. "We spent too much," he conceded. "I have a fourth grader, an eighth grader and a girl who just finished high school. I should have kept working and put the money in bonds."
Mrs. Martin recalled the summer night in 1998 when the family was having a spaghetti dinner at home in Paso Robles, in central California, and a bank representative called to ask where to wire the money. "It seemed like an unbelievable amount," she said regretfully. Soon after the money arrived, the family decided to leave Paso Robles, amid some lingering tensions that Mr. Martin felt with his brother and brother-in law, who had run the business. Mr. Martin had never been in management at the billboard company, though he had been on the board and worked at Martin Brothers Winery, another family business. First, the Martins bought a house in Somerset, England, near the home of Mrs. Martin's parents, and he decided to write a novel. At about the same time, they spent $250,000 on the 3.5-acre camp with four structures on Tupper Lake, deep in the Adirondacks, as a summer home. They began extensive renovations at the lake, adding a stunning three-story boathouse and two other buildings. Clouds gathered quickly. Life in England turned sour when Mr. Martin's novel, "Anthony: Conniver's Lament," did not sell, and the family's living costs — school fees, taxes and even advice for filing tax returns — swelled. In 2002, fed up with England, the Martins chose a new base, Vermont, and plunked down about $650,000 for a home there, as renovations continued on the Tupper Lake property.
By March 2007, the Martins were determined to move to the lake full time. They managed their expenses for a while, but the costs mounted and mounted some more as they worked at refurbishing the Adirondack property — eventually totaling a staggering $5.3 million, Mr. Martin said. He poured another $600,000 into the Vermont property, he said. He vacillates between blaming the builders and blaming himself for letting costs get out of hand. "We should have built something quite modest," he conceded. Tensions rose in 2007 as summer came without any offers for the Vermont home. "I thought that housing was going into a tailspin," he said. "I had the feeling that something bad was happening."
So "we started selling cars, shotguns, antique furniture, whatever," Mr. Martin said. The Aston Martin fetched $395,000. With a big gap in his employment history, he found a job teaching English at Paul Smith's College near his home in Tupper Lake for $14,000 a year. For an additional $7,000, he coached the school's cross-country runners.
Then came the financial crisis. The markets plunged, as did the value of the Martins' trust. By fall 2008, with much of the family's net worth tied up in housing, Mr. Martin faced a series of margin calls. He needed more cash in his brokerage accounts because he had been tapping into a credit line with his investments as collateral. In January 2009, he cashed in a retirement account worth roughly $91,000. The houses could not be sold quickly. Though if they had been, some of the pressure would have lifted. "To maintain those things, you have to have a pretty good cash flow," Mr. Martin said. The family ultimately put the Adirondacks property on the market for $4.9 million, then quickly slashed the price by half. Last month, the Martins got an offer for just half of the latest $2.5 million asking price. They have stopped making payments on their $1.1 million mortgage and their $53,000 in annual property taxes in the Adirondacks as well as the mortgage and taxes on their Vermont home. They cannot afford those obligations on Mr. Martin's current salary of $51,000. Their household income is down from $250,000 four years ago.
At the moment, they are working with a loan modification unit at their bank. The lender proposed a new payment of $3,550 a month, reduced from $7,400. Given his current status, Mr. Martin argued, that it does not make much sense. He predicts that the house will ultimately be sold or taken over by the bank. Meanwhile, for the Christmas holidays and some of next summer, the family has found renters for the main house to help cover some of the costs.
Over lunch recently at Barleycorn's Downtown Bar and Deli in Wamego, Mr. Martin said he believed "the worst is behind us."
Perhaps. But a forced restructuring can be difficult for children and spouses even in longstanding marriages. Sometimes he and his wife took it out on each other, he said. "She bought a bunch of horses. I blamed her for the horses. I bought cars. She blamed me for the cars — and the house being too big. We had a rough time," he acknowledged. "But I think we have gotten over that." Until Christmas, when she plans to join him, Mrs. Martin continues to work as a substitute teacher with autistic children at an Adirondacks elementary school: a $12,000-a-year job she loves in a place she says she is hesitant to leave. With their younger daughter, she has moved into a smaller building on their big property.
A lively woman who loves bike riding and horses, she has built a close network of friends. "What is the place in Kansas like?" she asked a reporter with some trepidation before her first visit at Thanksgiving. Mr. Martin, who moved to Kansas last April, brought the couple's 13-year-old son, Edward, to join him in the fall. He has been counting the days until his wife and Sophia, 9, come permanently. The older daughter, Mrs. Martin's from a previous marriage, has found work in Florida after finishing high school.
In the meantime, Mr. Martin is also overseeing a one-acre vineyard beside the Oregon Trail Road, drawing on his knowledge of the wine industry from his California days. He does what he can to lessen the family strains. "I have a temper. I have to control my temper," he said. "I could drink like a fish, but if you have problems in your life, drinking does not help." And he recites a quotation he holds dear : "The measure of a man is not whether he falls down, but whether he gets up again." Still, Mr. Martin is prone to ruminate over the loss of so much money. He is furious at the banks and the bankers, who he thinks gave him bad advice, and he still sounds angry at his brother and others who decided to sell the company and who he says gave him little voice. Some of them got more than $100 million each, he said, while he got $14 million, as did his father and his sister Ann, because they were all minority shareholders. His brother-in-law David Weyrich said that if Mr. Martin had objections to the sale, he did not voice them.
Mrs. Martin says she believes the move from California was motivated in part because he resented his brother and brother-in-law's bigger role in the community. She also speculates that the Adirondacks estate was alluring partly as a way of keeping up. "I think he wanted to show his brother and brother-in-law that he had a big home, too," she said over dinner recently in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Mr. Martin disagreed. "We are Irish Catholics, and we thought it would be a compound for our family over generations," he said. After the cramped rooms at their house in England, he liked the big rooms, he said. "Sometimes, things don't work out."