When Pattie Sellers speaks of Warren, she means Warren Buffett. Her work for Fortune has drawn the business magnate’s admiration. On her 50th birthday, Buffett sent well wishes by way of a 5-by-7-foot card.
Once, she asked her frequent interviewee-turned-friend, “What is success?”
Success is having the people who you love, love you, she recalls him saying.
“Warren Buffett doesn’t care about having a lot of money,” says Sellers. (Indeed he’s pledged to give away more than 99 percent of his wealth.) In her more than three decades at Fortune, the veteran journalist has amassed a portfolio of insights on success, wealth and power. She interviewed not-yet-president Donald Trump for a 1996 story on charisma. From the corner suite of Manhattan’s Trump Tower, he told her, “I know more about charisma than anyone.”
“I think my charisma now is higher than ever.” She’s interviewed Melinda Gates several times, including on stage for the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. A through-line Sellers noted from Gates and many uber achievers was how they defined power: “They all defined it not as a job and not as a career but an ability to change people’s lives.”
Sellers sees this quality in the more privately successful people of Southwest Florida, where she began establishing winter roots several years ago. She wants to record their stories too, but not as a journalist.
In 2016, Sellers stopped writing and editing for Fortune magazine and its website to start SellersEaston Media with fellow Fortune veteran Nina Easton. The small business helps companies and individuals tell and own their stories through articles, books, videos, films, live events and more.
One popular service is capturing family legacy stories, says Sellers, noting communication is critical in the successful transfer of family wealth. Sellers sees a market for these video memoirs in Southwest Florida, rich in its share of current and retired CEO’s and prominent philanthropists.
“Here’s why I love being in Southwest Florida,” says Sellers over coffee in Estero this past February. “It’s warm, it’s sunny, it’s laidback, it’s relaxing and it’s full of people who have led and are still living, through their work and through their philanthropy, lives of impact, which is what we’re all about.”
From journalism to start-up
After college, Sellers chased many a writer’s dream: living in New York City and working for a magazine. She was hired at Fortune in 1984 and rented a 300-square-foot apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West side, about a block from where she lives now. “I love it, but I do not love the winters.” Hence, her snowbird tendencies.
Early on at Fortune, she wrote about Coke, Pepsi, Kraft and Procter & Gamble. At the time, “corporate America was led by white men without facial hair,” she says. “It was not a diverse cast of characters in those companies.”
Even so, she loved writing about smart people and how they shaped the world. Sellers wrote more than 20 cover stories, often interviewing the prominent and powerful. (Her 1996 charisma article is featured online as a Fortune classic.)
Sellers also cofounded Fortune Most Powerful Women, which began in 1998 as an annual ranking for the magazine and grew into events and programs. Sellers still chairs the annual flagship Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit and plays a role in the five other conferences across the globe. “We grew this into a very, healthy profitable multi-media brand within Fortune,” she says.
Through that brand, Sellers interviewed Jan Fields several times. At McDonald’s, Fields rose from a fry cooking crew member to its U.S. president, earning a No. 17 ranking on the Fortune Most Powerful Women list in 2011. Fields led efforts to disclose nutritional information and introduce healthier options for Happy Meals.
Sellers built credibility with Fields, which is how Sellers scored an exclusive when a big announcement came down in 2012: Fields was out.
“All the press were calling, and she was the only one I answered,” says Fields, a part-time Southwest Florida resident.
“I said, ‘Pattie, you know I can’t talk to the press. … Wait a minute, I was fired. What do you want to talk about?’”
“I trusted her as a journalist.”
In that article, Fields was refreshingly frank for a just-booted corporate boss: “Everyone has a date stamped on their ass, and they’re the only one who can’t see it.”
The mutual respect later evolved into friendship. (Sellers now stays in the guest wing of Fields’ Quail West home when she’s in Naples. Fields divides her time between Chicago and Naples, where she lives seasonally with her husband.)
Sellers continued to love her Fortune work but grew weary of the shrinking ability to do long, well-crafted magazine stories. “The onus on every writer was to write not only great stories but write great stories for the web, and the measure of success is how many eyeballs did you get,” she says.
She saw another niche for her storytelling skills.
“For people of a certain level of success and stature who require real quality and have the money to afford it, there’s really nobody out there capturing their story and allowing them to own the content,” Sellers says. “It’s wonderful to be in my late 50s and to be doing something different and learning so much.”
SellersEaston Media’s portfolio has included corporate storytelling and large projects such as producing a documentary for Juan Manuel Santos, the former president of Colombia who left office in 2018. Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for his efforts to end the country’s long civil war. They are also working on several projects related to the 50th anniversary, in 2020, of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
Stories can preserve family wealth
For Sellers, a highlight is producing family legacy stories, which go for $35,000. Sellers or Easton handles the interviews, filmed by a small TV-quality crew. Interviews typically last about two hours. They are then professionally edited. Clients retain ownership.
Sellers says it’s crucial for high net-worth families to pass along guiding values and wisdom. “Passing on your story to the next generation I believe is the best gift you can give them, and potentially the most valuable gift.”
Preserving family wealth, in many cases, requires communication, according to financial services firms. Sixty percent of family fortunes are lost due to lack of communication and trust, according to 2018 research from BNY Mellon’s Pershing.
In more than two out of three instances, family wealth fails to outlive the generation following the one that created it, according to a Bank of America press release citing Merrill Lynch research. (Bank of America is also a SellersEaston client.)
“Industry research has shown that most wealth transfer failures are the result of breakdowns in communication within families,” it notes.
Researching and sharing family histories has long been part of preserving generational wealth. In January 2018, The New York Times reported on how wealthy entrepreneurs and family business executives are now using those stories as action plans. Wealth management firms are responding with services through family historians.
Wells Fargo, the article noted, offers thorough family history research free to the ultra-high net worth clients of its Abbot Downing division.
SellersEaston’s legacy stories fit into this trend. Says Sellers, “Generationally wealthy families benefit when younger generations see the hard work and often difficult times that came before them.”
Many clients do not wish to share their stories for public consumption, says Sellers.
A clip she could share was of John Mack, former CEO and chairman of Morgan Stanley. Mack tells of growing up the son of Lebanese immigrants in a small North Carolina mill town, where most of students did not go on to college.
“You had to be educated, you had to be family-oriented, and you had to believe in a religion,” he says in the video. “That’s the way I grew up and I got lucky.”
A few years ago, Sellers produced a video for Naples resident Michael Benson in which he shared his entrepreneurial journey. For decades, Benson often worked 60 to 70 hours a week to build three financial services firms, including Benson Blackburn.
“I thought it would be important for my children and my grandchildren to have some memoirs of my life,” he says. “I talked about the value of hard work, the value of having compassion for others before yourself. I talked about the value of building relationships and trust, and serving others—serving others is the reason we’re put here.”
For Christmas that year, he gave the video to his family. When he’s told his friends about the video, they ask, “Who did that and how much did it cost?”
Sellers has also produced legacy stories for billionaire families in the Miami and West Palm Beach area and hopes to identify more clients in Southwest Florida. Her friend Jan Fields believes the market here is deep.
“Not everybody is on the front page of The Wall Street Journal every day, but there’s an awful lot of very successful, innovative people who literally made changes to the world who live down there and people don’t know about it,” says Fields. Fields herself, though, is not up for it. “I won’t let her do one on me. I have enough written about me. I’m over it.”