US billionaire Donald Trump, before setting his sights on the White House, built an empire of real estate. (AFP Photo)
Washington, United States: "Self-made man" or born into billions? Successful entrepreneur or serial bankrupt?
US billionaire Donald Trump, before setting his sights on the White House, built an empire of real estate -- with some colossal flops along the way.
With luxury properties around the world -- Trump Towers in Manhattan and Mumbai, Trump hotels in Miami and Chicago, Trump golf courses from Los Angeles to Scotland -- the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination made a name as a symbol of business success.
And now his campaign is turning that into a formidable pitch for voter support.
In Republican debates or in front of TV cameras, Trump, 69, never hesitates to offer himself as the incarnation of the American Dream, the one candidate capable of "Making America Great Again", as his campaign slogan runs.
"Donald J. Trump is the very definition of the American success story," touts the website of his business group, The Trump Organization, a closely-held company where two of Trump's sons and a daughter work.
Riches to richer
But his is no rags-to-riches tale. His Father Fred Trump, a descendent of German immigrants, had already amassed a fortune as a real estate developer in New York's Queens borough, specializing in apartment buildings for the middle class.
"He's made a much larger success than his father, but self-made, no," said Gwenda Blair, author of "The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a Presidential Candidate."
"He started out with quite a lot, and used his father's financial base and his political connections."
Trump himself concedes he received what he called a "small" million-dollar loan from his father to launch his own projects. But he targeted a different clientele, the cream of New York's wealthy in the flashy 1980s.
"He saw that some people, rather than hide how much money they had, wanted to advertise it just like he does -- people who wanted the world to know that their apartments were very expensive," Blair said.
Michael Lind, author of "Land of Promise: an Economic History of The United States", said Trump knew how to target the nouveau riche class, "because he has the same tastes."
"He's what we call a booster, someone who can boost the economic development of a city or a state."
Still, Donald Trump's accumulation of a $4.5 billion fortune didn't come without bumps and bruises. Four times between 1991 and 2009 his casino and hotel projects on the East Coast fell into bankruptcy.
For Trump, that was normal business for an entrepreneur, and he fought hard with creditors in bankruptcy reorganization to keep a stake in the properties, which all bore his name.
"I have used the laws of this country just like the greatest people you read about every day," he says in his defense -- adding that he personally has never gone bankrupt.
The first to fail, the Trump Taj Mahal in the beachside gambling city of Atlantic City, south of New York, threatened Trump's own fortune. To cover some of the casino's debts, he had to sell off his yacht and private jet, and half of his shares.
The business flops were not necessarily due to poor management.
"There were major upheavals, lots of additional competition, acts of god in terms of major storms that impacted the traffic," Edward Weisfelner, who worked for creditors fighting Trump, told AFP.
Weisfelner said Trump was a tough negotiator who bargained very effectively to protect his interests.
"The creditors were upset, but they were still seeing a lot of commercial value in his name and his ability to draw customers to a casino," he said. "Taking his name off all the signage and napkins would have been a phenomenal cost."
Ultimately all of the companies survived, with Trump retaining some interest.
And now the property magnate is turning those experiences into a reason voters should support him to become president of the United States.
"This country right now has $19 trillion in debt and they need somebody like me to straighten out that mess," Trump declared in August, as his campaign for the White House nomination hit full speed.