Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How Jimmy Buffet spun rock anthems into a $1 billion financial and lifestyle empire

Buffett has built a career—and a 10-figure fortune—distilling carefree island vibes into hit songs, merchandise, a chain of restaurants, resorts, even gated communities

Published: Apr 25, 2023 11:55:52 AM IST
Updated: Apr 25, 2023 12:07:29 PM IST

How Jimmy Buffet spun rock anthems into a <img billion financial and lifestyle empireJimmy Buffet, American singer-songwriter, musician, author, actor and businessman Image: Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images
 
Every day is like a vacation for Jimmy Buffett. When Forbes met up with the singer-songwriter on December 2022, he was just back from the Bahamas. He’d soon jet off to St Barts, the Caribbean paradise where he has had a home for 30 years. “We’ve seen all kinds of fun come and go on that little rock,” Buffett says.

His workdays might as well be leisure time, too. Buffett, 76, has built a career—and a 10-figure fortune—distilling carefree island vibes into hit songs, merchandise, a chain of restaurants, resorts, even gated communities. Those five decades in the sun have paid off:  Forbes estimates Buffett’s current net worth to be $1 billion. (He declined to comment on his fortune.)

The party started in the early 1970s, when Buffett landed in Key West, Florida, after a few years in Nashville as a fledgling country musician. “The whole idea of having a brand or anything, that never occurred to me until I got to Key West,” Buffett told Forbes in December. On that tiny spit of sand, just 100 miles from Havana, he played local clubs and gradually forged his trademark tropical rock sound, combining folk, calypso, rock and pop to create an indelibly new genre.

His breakthrough came with the beachy, easy-living strains of his hit ‘Margaritaville’, from his 1977 album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. The LP went platinum that year, and ‘Margaritaville’ became an anthem to his loyal fans, who call themselves Parrotheads. A 1984 licensing deal with Corona beer reinvigorated his radio airtime and helped boost the lager brand from 2 percent to 17 percent market share in imported brews in just four years.

As his popularity grew, Buffett increasingly spotted knock-off T-shirts at Key West merch stores, on sale without his approval—and with his name often misspellt “Buffet” to boot. He wanted to own his brand, so he teamed up with longtime pal Donna “Sunshine” Smith to open the first Margaritaville T-shirt shop in Key West in 1985.

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“If you’re an artist, if you want to have control of your life... then you gotta be a businessman, like it or not,” Buffett told Forbes in 1994. “So the businessman evolved out of being an artist.”

That one store ultimately led to an empire that encompasses bestselling novels (such as 1989’s Tales from Margaritaville), a Broadway musical, the Mailboat Records label and an internet radio station. Three decades ago, he met John Cohlan—a former finance executive whose firm invested in a bunch of fast-food chains. Cohlan later became CEO of Margaritaville Holdings and transformed the venture into what is now a sprawling global licensing operation that brought in $2.2 billion in sales in 2022—not including Buffett’s $400 million (estimated sales) booze business—according to a source close to the company.

The Margaritaville brand spans more than 30 vacation resorts scattered from Manhattan and Palm Springs to the Dominican Republic and Mexico. There are 150 Buffett-themed restaurants, both free-standing and inside the resorts across the US and Caribbean, which serve “Who’s to Blame” margaritas and Jimmy’s Jammin’ Jambalaya. There are casinos in Louisiana and Puerto Rico, Margaritaville apparel and frozen-drink mixes, pool floats and pickleball sets. Then there are the separate alcohol partnerships: Landshark beer and tropical punch (with AB InBev), Margaritaville tequila and, of course, ready-to-drink margaritas and cocktails (both with Sazerac).

His newest ventures promise even more 24/7 Buffett fun: Two-night, three-day Caribbean cruises (“Margaritaville at Sea”) offer respite from the residential communities in Florida and South Carolina that thousands of Boomer Parrotheads now call home.

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Documents reviewed by Forbes reveal Buffett holds a 28 percent stake in the licensing company that’s estimated to be worth $180 million, plus another $60 million from the tequila and beer business. The rest of his fortune comprises an estimated $570 million amassed over a lifetime of touring and record sales, a music catalog valued at $50 million and a $140 million collection of six homes, four planes and a yacht and shares in Berkshire Hathaway, the investment conglomerate run by Warren Buffett (despite the rumours, no relation). Not bad for the Pascagoula, Mississippi, native who comes from a family of crabbers and ship captains and who spent his adulthood busking while in college and working briefly for music-industry bible Billboard.

His outsize success has made a strong impression even on Omaha’s Buffett, the world’s fifth-richest person and an old friend. “I wish there were more Jimmy Buffetts, but there aren’t,” Warren Buffett tells Forbes.

“Tell Jimmy to keep me in his will!”
 
Additional Reporting By Rob Lafranco, John Hyatt And Jemima Mcevoy.

(This story appears in the 05 May, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)