Author Charles J. Givens Guides His Readers to Wealth Without Risk—after Going Bust Three Times

UPDATED 01/15/1990 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/15/1990 at 01:00 AM EST

He's got a Rolls-Royce, a BMW convertible, a stretch Lincoln limo and an Excalibur convertible—all in a shade that might be called conspicuous-consumption white—parked in the circular driveway of his Orlando, Fla., mansion. He's got a 57-foot yacht under construction up the road, a Cessna Citation at the airport and, right here in the living room, a stone's throw from the waterfall and the Jacuzzi, a leggy maid in a black miniskirt flutters about serving soft drinks.

And if all of this seems a little flashy for a fellow who is supposed to be a financial adviser, well, 48-year-old Charles J. Givens, author of the best-selling Wealth Without Risk: How to Develop a Personal Fortune Without Going Out on a Limb, thinks that's great.

"I have a kind of an Entertainment Tonight image out there in the financial world," says Givens, an easygoing fellow with a disarmingly open air. "It helps me to get to people. And that's good marketing, that's all that is."

Gotten to people, he has: Published in 1988, Wealth has spent 47 weeks on the best-seller list, with more than 500,000 copies in print. Some critics, however, claim the book will garner readers little more than pin money. "It could save you $200 or $300—which is nothing to sneeze at since the book costs $20," says Dr. Andrea J. Heuson, an associate professor of finance at the University of Miami. "But it won't make you a millionaire."

Givens's advice is a compendium of consumer strategies, tax tips and miscellaneous investment schemes all wrapped up in a psychological pep talk. ("Can you do it? You bet you can!") Some of the advice is common sense ("Keep your will up to date"), and some, to put it mildly, is farfetched for casual investors ("Start a small importing company"). Forbes magazine has called the book "a useless, misleading, error-filled heap of bunkum"; it also says that while many of Givens's taxcutting tips "are perfectly legal but perfectly absurd, a lot of his investing advice is flat-out wrong." Forbes disputes, for example, Givens's statement that "there is also one of the three types of mutual-stock, bond or money market—that will give you an average investment return of 20 percent per year or more."

The book, however, is only a small part of the Givens empire, which he claims will earn him $7 million dollars this year. A protégé of entrepreneur Glenn Turner, whose "dare to be great" motivational schemes finally earned him a jail sentence in 1973, Givens has parlayed a simple pitch into a sprawling organization that claims 168,000 wanna-be-rich members. Most have joined after seeing Givens's cable TV show or hearing him lecture—like an itinerant preacher, he travels the nation constantly dispensing financial wisdom. The lectures are free. Membership in the Givens Organization, however, which includes videotapes and manuals, costs a onetime fee of $399 plus $20 a quarter if you want the newsletter and continuing access to a financial advice hotline. For another $395 you can get the services of Givens's in-house brokerage firm.

At his lectures Givens urges folks to follow his "dream strategy": Take stock of what they want and go for it. No wild-eyed arm waver, he delivers his spiel with a low-key intensity. "He's like a financial evangelist," a former aide says. "In those seminars, he really pours it on. He's a salesman at heart."

But there are a few glitches in this well-oiled cash machine. Two of the investment funds operated by a Givens brokerage house were among the lowest ever rated by the Stanger Register, an independent publication that tracks current offerings of public limited partnerships and the level of fees their sponsors charge. In 1987, the two funds were withdrawn from the market, but Givens says of them, "I don't mind making big money off of everything when everybody is thanking you for helping them."

Givens has also run afoul of the IRS because he initially launched his nine-year-old organization as a foundation and claimed nonprofit status. The government—which will not comment on the case—disagreed. Attorneys are currently negotiating a settlement.

But none of this interferes with Givens's obvious enjoyment of the good life and that requisite of success the Gorgeous Second Wife Adena, 29, whom he wed this year. "I have to continually point out to people that life wasn't always like this," he says. "I live my dream every day."

As Givens tells it, his is a remarkable success story—even if he went bust a few times along the way. Born in Decatur, Ill., Givens watched alcoholism destroy his mother, his father and his father's contracting business. "I looked at what happened to my father," says Givens, "and I swore that would never happen to me."

Young Charles worked as a supermarket clerk and in a foundry. At age 21 he married Bonnie Lee Bond—then a secretary and now an accountant in the Givens Organization—and had two sons, Chuck, now 26, and Rob, 25. While still in Decatur, he also joined a band and became "a rock-and-roll semistar in the area," he says. Once he realized that "the people who made the money in the business were the record producers and songwriters," he relocated to Nashville.

"In three years," he says, "I went from nothing to a million dollars net worth because of a recording studio. In' 66 it burned to the ground, and I didn't have insurance. I was 25 when I had a million-dollar financial statement, 26 when I was broke." But some veterans of the Nashville music scene say they can remember no such studio, and local newspapers have no records of the fire. When pressed, Givens admits that his business hadn't yet opened when it burned.

Next, Givens signed on with Genesco, the multimillion-dollar clothing and footwear firm, working his way up from an entry-level computer operator "to the executive floor." It was at Genesco, Givens says, that he made—then lost—another million playing the stock market. "I figured out a way to buy hundreds and hundreds of shares of stock on credit," he says. "Nobody ever told me that stock could go down."

A Genesco official confirms that Givens worked for the company from 1967 to 1971 as a systems analyst; the spokesman says that Givens "remained in the same position as manager of methods and procedures—a computer programmer." A good friend from Genesco, Perry Davis, recalls that Givens was still dabbling in the music business and tried to raise money from other Genesco employees for a record about Batman. "He did a song about a Batmobile," Davis says. "I remember hearing a copy of the song with the car squealing its tires."

In 1970, Givens and Davis joined up with Glenn Turner, whose motivational course called Dare to Be Great was run as a pyramid scheme. People were persuaded to buy the course on the promise that they could recoup their investment by selling the program to others. But it rarely worked out that way, and such "multilevel marketing" operations were soon declared illegal in many states, including Tennessee. Davis pleaded guilty to violating the new state law, but by that time Givens had already moved on to Florida. (In 1973, Turner, after much legal wrangling, pleaded guilty to federal misdemeanor charges.)

After he left the Turner organization, Givens says he leveraged an insurance policy to build a yacht club on the Intracoastal Waterway near Vero Beach, Fla.—"a million-dollar piece of property" he claims went bust when the state called a moratorium on dredging in the area. (Several locals questioned could recall no such project, and again Givens admits the project never really got off the ground. "We couldn't build the docks, so it didn't open," he says.) Next, Givens was a real-estate broker. He peddled biofeedback devices under the rubric Awareness Motivation Institute. ("I called it an institute to make it sound big," he says. "Even though it was a little rented office.") Then in 1980, he discovered the financial-advice business. He worked up a pitch and got on several TV talk shows. In 1985, a Simon and Schuster editor who had seen him on the Today show asked him to do a book.

Today, Givens has a $3 million contract for three new books with Simon and Schuster. He has bought three radio stations and is thinking of getting a horse farm. "I always dreamed of being able to write a best-selling book," he says. "This was a kid who couldn't spell. One of the things I learned is that you don't need to know a whole lot of spelling to write a best-seller."

—Joyce Wadler, Don Sider in Orlando and Jane Sanderson in Nashville

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