Businesses backed by some of America’s wealthiest individuals—including hotel owner Robert Rowling, car dealer Norman Braman and Laurene Powell Jobs—received Paycheck Protection Plan Loans from the U.S. government.
Car dealer Norman Braman (left, above), hip-hop superstar Kanye West (middle) and West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (right)—these billionaires and more run companies that borrowed millions of dollars from the government—chump change for the nation’s richest.
Following weeks of requests for transparency on who got funding, on Monday the Trump administration released the names of companies that received PPP loans of $150,000 or more. So far Forbes found at least 34 companies backed by 15 billionaires that received loans designed to help small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic. Borrowers include Kanye West’s apparel brand Yeezy, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice’s Greenbrier hotel and resort, Elon Musk’s tunnel digging firm The Boring Company and Florida-based auto dealership Braman Motorcars, owned by billionaire Norman Braman.
“At the precipice of this unprecedented public health crisis, I made several difficult decisions to weather an indefinite storm and preserve the viability of the dealerships,” Braman, who Forbes estimates is worth $2.6 billion, said in a statement. “In early March, I reduced all executive compensation by over 95%, and I eliminated my compensation entirely. In addition, in one of the most sobering decisions I have made as a dealer, I furloughed nearly thirty percent of our workforce–more than 500 people.” When Forbes asked him to comment on the criticism of billion-dollar businesses receiving PPP loans, Braman skirted the question, replying that the government made the program available to his business “to protect employees.”
In early April, Braman’s businesses, including one of the largest auto dealerships in Florida, received a total of $16 million to $36 million, according to data from the Small Business Administration. Braman did not disclose the exact amount of the loans, but said that shortly after receiving these funds, his dealerships brought nearly all employees back to work. “Over 90% of the PPP funds expended went directly to our employees, with the remainder used to pay business utilities, mortgage interest, and rent. These PPP funds enabled more than 98% of our furloughed employees to be brought back to work within weeks. Today, more than 95% of our pre-pandemic workforce is working at our dealerships,” he said.
The PPP loan program is largely open to any business—including nonprofits, veterans organizations and independent contractors—with 500 or fewer employees per location, making the loans available to low and moderate income business owners as well as billionaires.
“If Congress wanted to make the funds available to those who needed them most, they probably should have sent the funds to the small businesses directly.”
The program came under fire in April after its first round of funding. A Forbes analysis revealed that 71 publicly-traded companies received PPP loans, including national chains such as Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which returned the loans following a public backlash. The billionaire founder of web hosting business GoDaddy, Bob Parsons, says he received $8 million in PPP loans for his 16 businesses including a golf club maker and Harley Davidson dealership in April but returned the money in May. “There’s many other businesses that needed it more than we do, so we felt like it was only right to give it back,” Parsons told Forbes in May. “It took a little soul-searching—it was a sweet deal—but I’ve never been above doing the right thing, and that was the right thing.”
Not all billionaires apparently agree, raising questions once again as to who is receiving the federal loans.
The pandemic has hit small businesses particularly hard, wiping out 3.3 million, or 22% of them, from February to April this year, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. While an analysis by the SBA stated that “low and moderate income areas received PPP loans approximately proportionate to their percentage of the population,” the NBER study showed that the fallout of the pandemic was felt disproportionately by communities of color. Black small businesses were hit the hardest, with 41% closing, whereas 32% of Latinx business owners had to shut down their businesses, the study found.
“We cannot rely on shame and social pressure to make businesses do the right thing,” says Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of California Irvine. “If Congress wanted to make the funds available to those who needed them most, they probably should have sent the funds to the small businesses directly. Instead, they allowed banks to choose the PPP recipients. This was a bad idea and this exact result was inevitable.”
Here are the billionaires—and the companies and nonprofits they back— that received PPP loans:
Net worth: $2.6 billion
PPP loan recipients: Braman Colorado Imports, Braman Colorado European Imports, Braman Motors, Braman Imports, Braman Palm Beach, Braman Automotive, Braman Cadillac, Braman Hyundai
Jobs retained: 1,407
In early March, Braman’s car dealerships in Florida and Colorado shut down due to the pandemic and furloughed over 500 employees. Braman says he cut salaries of executives by 95% and decided to forgo his entire salary. In April, he received multiple PPP loans for his dealerships totaling $16 million to $36 million and rehired most of the furloughed employees. The son of immigrant parents, Braman was a waterboy for the Philadelphia Eagles, which he bought in 1985 and sold in 1994 for a $120 million profit. Now settled in Miami, he is known for bringing the Swiss art fair Art Basel to the city in 2002.
Net worth: $1.3 billion
PPP loan recipient: Yeezy LLC
Jobs retained: 106
About 10 days before Forbes declared that the hip-hop superstar and footwear magnate was indeed a billionaire in late April, Kanye West’s clothing and shoe design company Yeezy got a loan of between $2 million and $5 million. Because Adidas manufactures and markets the high-end shoes, which retail for $360 or more, it’s not exactly clear what 106 people are doing on the Yeezy payroll. West’s rep didn’t reply to a request for comment.
Getty Images for Vanity fair
Net worth: $1.2 billion
PPP loan recipients: The Greenbrier Hotel, Jobs retained: Zero
The Greenbrier Sporting Club, Jobs retained: 120
Ranger Fuel Coal Corporation, Jobs retained: 71
Blackstone Energy Ltd., Jobs retained: N/A
Bluestone Coke, LLC, Jobs retained: N/A
Justice Energy Company Inc., Jobs retained: N/A
The coal-mining tycoon has served as governor of West Virginia since 2017 and, as Forbes detailed in an April 2019 investigation, hasn’t been great at paying the bills. His Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, which shut down for two months from late March to late May, took a PPP loan ranging from $5 million to $10 million. The Greenbrier Sporting Club, a membership club that touts “luxury living,” infinity pools and more for real estate owners in the 11,000 acres around the resort, took a loan of $1 million to $2 million in April. A representative for Justice did not reply to a request for comment.
Net worth: $3.5 billion
PPP loan recipients: Omni Hotels including Omni Montelucia in Scottsdale, Arizona; Omni San Francisco; Omni Fort Worth; Omni Charlotte, North Carolina; Omni Louisville in Kentucky; Omni Boston Corp.; Omni Bedford Springs in Pennsylvania; Omni Jacksonville Corp. in Florida; Omni Rhode Island; Omni Pittsburgh; Omni Berkshire in New York; Omni La Mansion in San Antonio, Texas; Omni Charlottesville in Virginia. TRT Development Company – CCM, TRT Development Company – Austin, TRT Development Company – Dallas, TRT Development Company – West Houston, TRT Development Company – San Antonio
Jobs retained: at least 3,035
Dallas-based Rowling’s TRT Holdings acquired the Omni Hotel chain for $500 million in 1996 after selling the family oil business. He’s since built it into a multi-billion-dollar operation, with 60 hotels across the country and more under construction. According to the SBA data, 13 Omni hotels received loans mostly in the $2 million to $5 million range each, for a total of between $27 million and $64 million. Those include brand new hotels in Louisville, Kentucky and Boston as well as the Omni Berkshire in midtown Manhattan. Five branches of his TRT Development company – in five cities in Texas — got loans of mostly $1 million to $2 million each. Another Rowling-owned company, the Gold’s Gym chain, went through a prepackaged Chapter 11 restructuring in May. An Omni spokesperson did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Net worth: $7.9 billion
PPP loan recipients: Museum of the Bible (nonprofit)
Jobs retained: 249
The Museum of the Bible, funded by Hobby Lobby founder David Green and his family, took a PPP loan of $2 million to $5 million. The museum, which shut down on March 20 due to Covid-19, reopened on June 22. The devout Christian family derives its fortune from its ownership of the arts-and-crafts chain. Green’s son Steve chairs the board of the Washington, D.C.-based museum. Hobby Lobby declined to comment on the loan. The museum did not reply to Forbes’ request for comment.
Sue Ogrocki/ AP
Net worth: $2.2 billion
PPP loan recipients: Starkey Hearing Foundation (nonprofit)
Jobs retained: 30
Austin’s hearing aid company’s charitable foundation, long known for its glitzy galas and celebrity supporters, took a $350,000 to $1 million PPP loan. The foundation claims it’s provided services to more than 1.5 million people in more than 100 countries. Austin, 78, is CEO and owner of Starkey Hearing Technologies. Starkey Hearing Foundation applied for the PPP loan to help cover payroll costs and rent payments. “COVID-19 hit the nonprofit community hard, and we are grateful for the assistance to provide for our employees,” says the foundation’s president and board chair Richard Brown. “Bill Austin is the founder of Starkey Hearing Foundation and a passionate volunteer.”
Net worth: $1.9 billion
PPP loan recipients: Gores Vitac Holdings
Jobs retained: 500
Gores Vitac Holdings, an investment holding company operating under the private equity firm founded by Israeli-born billionaire Alec Gores, was approved for a loan of between $5 million and $10 million, according to the SBA’s data published Monday. Beverly Hills-based The Gores Group acquired closed-captioning provider Vitac Corporation for an undisclosed sum in February 2016, and Vitac has since become the nation’s largest provider of captioning services, transcribing more than 580,000 live hours and 75,000 pre-recorded programs annually to clients that include CNN, BBC America and DirecTV. It’s one of more than 120 acquisitions, totaling $4 billion in investments, made by The Gores Group since its founding in 1987. A spokesperson for The Gores Group had no comment.
Net worth: $3.1 billion
PPP loan recipients: Midway Car Rental
Jobs retained: 174
One of the smallest pieces of Hankey’s $12 billion (assets) auto and real estate empire, Los Angeles-based Midway Car Rental offers rentals of everything from Hondas to Lamborghinis. The business has been forced to temporarily shutter or reduce hours at its seven locations due to Covid-19, and has implemented stricter cleaning procedures for its vehicles and offices, according to its website. The company borrowed $1 million to $2 million in PPP loans, per the SBA data. Hankey made the bulk of his fortune in subprime auto lending and has a strict rule for each of his businesses: achieve a 30% pretax return on equity and 20% revenue growth annually. To make money, Hankey even regularly rents out his Malibu beach house for filming commercials, TV shows and movies, including CSI: Miami and Charlie’s Angels. He did not reply to a request for comment.
Ringo Chiu/ ZUMA Press/ Newscom
Net worth: $3.3 billion
PPP loan recipients: Pacific Outdoor Advertising
Jobs retained: 31
L.A. Angels owner Arturo Moreno owns a 25% stake in Pacific Outdoor Advertising, a small billboard company based in Portland, Oregon. The firm obtained a PPP loan of between $350,000 and $1 million, according to SBA data. Moreno made his initial fortune in the advertising business when he sold his billboard firm Outdoor Systems to Infinity Broadcasting for $8.7 billion in 1999; his stakes in Pacific Outdoor and another small billboard outfit in Denver make up a small portion of his current net worth. “I’m a minority investor and I was not contacted regarding any capital call or request for funding,” Moreno told Forbes in an email.
Net worth: $1.1 billion, $1.2 billion
PPP loan recipients: Trican Well Service L.P. and Cathedral Energy Services
Trican Well Service, Jobs retained: 23
Cathedral Energy Services, Jobs retained: N/A
Billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks sold their fracking business to Singapore-based Temasek for $3.4 billion (pretax) in 2011. They now own shares in several oil and gas firms, including stakes in publicly traded oilfield services companies Trican Well Service and Cathedral Energy Services, which are both listed on the Toronto stock exchange. Trican and Cathedral’s Texas-based subsidiaries both received PPP loans in the range of $350,000 to $1 million. On June 29, Cathedral announced it was taking out a $12 million line of credit extended to June 30, 2022 to provide “temporary covenant relief.” The Wilks brothers, Trican and Cathedral have not responded to requests for comment from Forbes.
Net worth: $5.2 billion
PPP loan recipients: Fluxergy
Jobs retained: 39
Tu, who made his fortune as the cofounder and CEO of computer memory company Kingston Technology, is the primary backer of medical testing start-up Fluxergy. As the company pivoted its focus to address COVID-19 in April, it was approved for a PPP loan worth more than $550,000. In May, Tu injected another $30 million into Fluxergy to bulk up its manufacturing, bringing his total investment in the company to $50 million. According to Fluxergy spokesman David Paine, the government loan was also necessary to keep operating. “Like any small start-up, Fluxergy is expected to be able to support and run itself independent of the personal wealth of its investors,” he said in an email. “The PPP loan has been vital in helping the company bridge this transition period, keep its key staff together, and pursue its work in support of Covid testing.”
Net worth: $1.4 billion
PPP loan recipient: Samumed
Jobs retained: 239
Kibar’s venture capital-backed biotech firm Samumed started with huge ambitions to cure baldness, heal arthritis and even erase wrinkles, as Forbes spelled out in a 2016 cover story. But so far Samumed, which bills itself as advancing the frontier of regenerative medicine, hasn’t gotten a drug approved by the FDA. The San Diego firm, which has drugs for arthritis of the knee and for hair loss in late stage clinical trials, borrowed $2 million to $5 million in late April. A spokesperson for Kibar and the company did not reply to a request for comment.
tim pannell/ the forbes collection
Net worths: $21.1 billion, $1.8 billion
PPP loan recipient: OZY Media
Jobs retained: 103
Through Emerson Collective, her hybrid investment, impact and philanthropy firm, Laurene Powell Jobs was an early investor in media startup Ozy Media back in 2013. She has continued to invest in the company, most recently in a November 2019 fundraising round of $35 million led by hedge fund billionaire Marc Lasry. According to SBA data, Ozy Media obtained a $2 million to $5 million PPP loan in April. Powell Jobs inherited her billions in Apple and Disney stock from her late husband, Steve Jobs. Lasry made his fortune throughAvenue Capital Management, a hedge fund he started in 1995 with his sister. Powell Jobs, Lasry and OZY Media have not responded to requests for comment from Forbes.
Net worth: $46.3 billion
PPP loan recipient: The Boring Company
Jobs retained: 25
Musk, who is best known for Tesla, the electric car company he runs, and SpaceX, the reusable rocket firm he founded and runs, has become one of the 25 richest people in the U.S. as the share price of Tesla has skyrocketed in the past year. That didn’t stop his tunnel digging firm, The Boring Company, from applying for a PPP loan of $350,000 to $1 million.The Boring Company is currently at work on building an underground transport system for the Las Vegas Convention Center. Forbes has not yet reached Elon Musk or The Boring Company for comment.
With reporting by Angel Au-Yeung, Hayley Cuccinello, Chris Helman, Chase Peterson-Withorn, Jonathan Ponciano, Ariel Shapiro and Giacomo Tognini
Disclosure: Forbes Media LLC was a recipient of a Paycheck Protection Program loan of $5 million to $10 million.