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Playing the hand you were dealt

By Ellis Liddell

I learned about economics and politics the hard way. In 1983, at 26 years old, I had the opportunity to travel to London and meet with a gentleman who had set up a deal to place a RC Cola factory in Sierra Leone, West Africa. He had done everything in his power to make this happen and had most of what he needed to close the deal.  However, two key pieces were missing: the blessing of then President Siake Stevens and the matching finances required by RC Cola. As fate would have it, I met a gentleman from Memphis, Tenn., a former state senator, who was looking to take a business group to Sierra Leone for a meeting with President Siaka Stevens. Once I informed my London contact that I could get an audience with the President, life placed me smack dab in the middle of one of the biggest deals of my life.

The plane from London to Sierra Leone represented the longest flight I had taken at that time. As I flew over Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, I saw a city that reminded me of Hollywood. There were beautiful, pristine homes sitting on rolling hills. In the center of town, there was a historic landmark: a huge cotton tree. What irony in the symbolism of a cotton tree in the center of Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa.

The meeting with President Stevens went well. He gave instructions to one of his assistants to call a meeting of the five wealthiest men in Sierra Leone. Having the President’s endorsement was a tall order being filled. I was given VIP treatment and was able to line up the millions of dollars required to bring one of the first cola factories to the continent of Africa. And then a political event that exceeded my mental comprehension occurred. The World Bank devalued the leone (the currency of Sierra Leone), where 15 leone was now equivalent to one leone. At that point, the deal fell through.

That economic/political event not only changed my history, but it changed the history of Sierra Leone as we know it. What’s reflected many years later is a war-torn, economically unstable entity that is a shell of the powerful country it once was.

As I watch the political upheaval that Detroit is now facing, I am reminded of a city that is losing its value the way Sierra Leone lost its value. The greatest capital under attack in Detroit is in fact the human capital. As a Detroit worker or resident, as you wait on a savior, just remember: “It’s hard to play the hand you are dealt when you can’t see your cards.” Detroiters are in the midst of getting a few bad deals. As we all know, the less you earn the more challenging it is to save for retirement. The workers who have had pay cut after pay cut have been permanently scarred. A reduction in wages, coupled with a freeze on wages, has impacted Social Security benefits along with pension payouts, ultimately affecting the household bottom line.

Detroit residents could possibly suffer the greatest injustice, in spite of helping to build, through their tax dollars, one of the greatest cities in America, by watching the pillars that hold this great city up sold off, regionalized or privatized. For example, the source of the Detroit water is on Belle Isle. Whoever controls Belle Isle, controls the water, and as everyone knows, whoever controls the water, controls the city.

At 26 years of age, that disappointment in Africa provided me with no major setback. As life would have it, there would many more disappointments in my path. In spite of it all, with God, I have prevailed. For Detroit workers approaching retirement, your challenge is great. Seek the advice of a good financial planner to help you develop a strategy for the hand you have been dealt.

Ellis Liddell is the president of ELE Wealth Management, LLC in Southfield. He is also the author of “Wealth Management: Merging Faith with Finance” and a member of the Million Dollar Roundtable.

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