David Siegel heads the Alexis de Tocqueville Society, an exclusive club of $10,000-plus donors to the annual Heart of Central Florida United Way fund drive, of which he is often the top individual donor. He has an honorary degree from Florida A&M University, in part the result of what he describes as a spur-of-the moment donation of $25,000. With annual income often in the tens of millions (more than $30 million in 1995, according to tax records made part of his divorce from wife Bettie), Siegel has established himself as one of Central Florida's most prominent philanthropists. Yet he personally feeds the homeless every Thanksgiving.
"Leadership starts at the top," says Brian Quail, president of the Heart of Florida United Way. "It's providing a good example. David walks the walk and talks the talk on behalf of raising dollars for those who are less fortunate in our community." The de Tocqueville society alone contributes more than $500,000 to the cause annually, he adds.
But the man who built what has been called the largest house on the Eastern seaboard is humble. In part because he has known poverty, he says. David Siegel's tells his rags to riches to rags to riches saga well, sitting on a couch in his expansive, disorganized third-story office overlooking International Drive.
"In 1953 -- no, it was 1954 -- I opened my first TV store in Coconut Grove. It was called Grove TV," Siegel begins. As a technical student at the University of Miami, Siegel got his start by having professors fix his friends' televisions, for which he would charge a small fee.
After six months Siegel was told to choose education or business. He chose business.
Siegel's cell phone rings. He holds it away from his mouth and speaks loudly: "Tell her to get out. Tell her you're taking possession of the house, and get out. Put the dog in the garage! I don't think the dog will bother you, a golden retri--
"We've got to take possession of the house ... The eviction is gonna stand. Even if he's caught up, it will be standing." He folds the phone shut.
Soon Siegel had a store in Liberty City and a fleet of Volkswagon vans. His salesmen offered the refurbished sets to the area's African-American residents for $10 down and $5 a week, he says, adding, "I only had about $10 in each one."
Those $5 payments soon financed three stores, a gas station, a house with a pool and a Buick convertible. "My goal was to make $125 a week," Siegel says. "I usually exceeded that."
The 1961 crisis in Berlin forced the reservist into active Air Force duty. Although he was just a few miles from home, Siegel's business collapsed during the year he spent on the base. He started over. "In six months, I'm doing better than I ever had in my life," he says.
Then in 1963, while Siegel was visiting his first wife in the hospital after his daughter's birth, one of his salesman was shot to death by a customer. Siegel closed the store and fell into a three-month depression.
Siegel credits his resurrection to best friends Fred and Carol Wasserman. His home in foreclosure, water and electricity off, Siegel says he was preparing to eat his Thanksgiving meal from a can when the Wassermans invited him to dinner.
"From there on, he just went uphill," says Wasserman, who has known Siegel since they were both 10. "He knows the bottom."
"I was so appreciative, every Thanksgiving for the past 36 years I call them up," Siegel says. "If they don't get a call from me, I'm dead." A reinvigorated Siegel opened an appliance store in the white section of town. The money wasn't as good there, he says, so he got into a new business, installing master antennas in large buildings. It was, he notes, the forerunner of cable television.
In 1967, Siegel bought back his father's old store in the black section of town. Soon it was thriving. "It was like a mini Kmart," Siegel says. "I'm doing phenomenal. All the customers are happy to see me back."
A year later, the store was firebombed during a riot. Siegel never returned: "by that time I'd gotten involved in real estate."
The cellular rings again: "I want my money," Siegel says. "I don't want the house. We'll charge him $100 to change the locks. Tell him we're not going to put up with this anymore. Put the dog in the garage if you want ... make sure the dog has water."
Often, the first thing you see when Siegel walks into a room is the two-foot deep bank box he carries on his shoulder, containing his files. What impresses people about David Siegel today is his work ethic. "He's a hard worker, for one thing," says Orange County Commissioner Bob Freeman. Adds Ronald Dale, who landscaped two of Siegel's homes: "He works his ass off."
Siegel says he arrived in Orlando in 1968 and sold raw land over the phone for a series of companies before subdividing his own 1,280-acre plot. By 1975 he had diversified by taking part ownership in the Mystery Fun House, he says, and soon after he took active control of it.
"I saw him work during those years when he first took out the Mystery Fun House," says Wasserman. "He'd be up at 2 a.m. He was a night person."
Siegel also bought an 80-acre orange grove on Highway 192. "I was making like $100,000 a year just in oranges," he says.
Siegel's tenant calls again. "Regular mail?" Siegel asks. "He never received it. I'm not gonna waste the time to put a trace on it. You better run to the bank and put a stop payment on it, get a cashier's check, and bring it to me. I don't take personal checks from you ... you aren't going to spend the night there if I don't have the money in my hand. How can I act like that?! The money was due on the sixth. It's now the ninth. Last time you were four months late. Don't tell me I'm the bad guy. I want my money when its due!"
In 1980 a man approached Siegel about buying 10 of his citrus acres. Siegel asked why, and the man explained the business of time sharing, and even took him to St. Augustine to show him an old hotel he was fixing up. The beauty part: You could sell suites for every week of the year -- 52 sales for each property -- and each contract could return more than the cost of construction. And because the contracts were for ownership, the buyers also pay all maintenance fees. Siegel refused to sell his land and began developing a time share of his own. In 1982 he opened his first 16 units -- 832 time share weeks to sell. They were called Westgate and they sold with a low down payment and a 10-year contract, similar to the land sales business he had been in.
Most time-share developers came from land sales, Siegel says. "When land sales people were selling swamp land, a lot of people had nothing to show for their money," he explains. "With timeshares, at least they have something."
During his career he has been involved in hundreds of lawsuits against competitors, former employees, contractors and, of course, unhappy customers. He acknowledges his reputation for litigiousness but says he only resorts to the courts when he knows he's right, and wins "99 percent" of the cases he's involved in.
"It's a tough business," Siegel says of his time-share empire, which now includes five resorts and claims $300 million in annual sales. "It's a hard way to make a living. You've got to deal with a lot of problems."
Siegel's phone rings again: it's the previous caller's husband. "First of all," Siegel says, "you know I don't take your personal check. ... Second of all, they never received it. ... The bank is open till 6 p.m. on Friday. You know where my office is."
Siegel excuses himself to consult with an assistant. Turns out the check was in the mail. Siegel tries to call the tenant back, leaves a message on the machine. "They did what they said they were gonna do and I think we screwed up," he explains. The monthly rent on the property in question is $22,000.
Siegel's work ethic, generosity and loyalty make him a great friend, says Wasserman, "and I'm proud of him."
"He was a long-kept secret for a long time," adds Freeman. "He wasn't a political player like he is now. He is a man of success."
"I've been very lucky," Siegel says. "I feel I want to give something back." Asked to reveal the secret of his success, Siegel relates a story from the mid-1970s, when a European hotel company in which he held a small amount of stock upgraded he and his family to a presidential suite. It made him feel like a big shot, Siegel recalls, and he never forgot it: "It was very simple -- I just treat people the way I'd like to be treated. I've had many experiences, and I know how to treat people and how not to treat people."