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Friends and close associates say Burns lost $100 million, massive chunks of land and numerous grand projects. In 1994, he lost his house and most everything in it.
The decade ended ignominiously for Burns with a 1999 government complaint in which the FDIC said it had found money Burns had been telling creditors he didn't have in his trusts and companies. This summer, in a settlement with the government, he agreed to pay $2 million plus, reportedly, a percentage of certain future profits to settle the government's judgments against him stemming from bad S&L loans.
For this uniquely driven and optimistic man, though, all these cases and charges and judgments weren't barriers, they were speed bumps. He kept making deals, he kept finding investors, he kept living a slightly reduced but nonetheless jet-set life.
And back in the early 1990s, he made a promise. No matter the obstacles, no matter how much money he owed, he would find a way to return to the crown jewel of his once great empire. He would be a part of Sun Valley.
He has kept that promise.
Sun Valley, under the new name of North Buckeye, is alive. A great metropolis is about to be built. And so Burns did have a vision and not just a hustle.
Now, thanks to a series of stunning financial coups, Burns is again part of this new metropolis. And this is why Robert Burns is now known by his longtime friends and longtime foes as the Great Survivor.
Even the great survivor of Europe, Gerald Ronson, calls Burns a great survivor.
"The last time Robert came to see me, he looked terrible," says the British financier, developer and, as the British press loves to note, convicted felon. Through Heron International, Ronson says, he lost half a billion dollars in the Arizona real estate debacle, much of it alongside Burns around Sun Valley.
"Robert looked like a man one step away from a nervous breakdown," Ronson says of their last meeting two years ago. "But he is a great survivor who has learned many shrewd lessons. And he is not a person who quits."
Ronson, who, through his own flights of supreme shrewdness, has reemerged as one of the top developers in Europe, did not elaborate on what shrewd lessons Burns had learned.
And Burns would not elaborate. Calls to him were returned only by his defamation lawyer, Kraig Marton, who said Burns "has no comment and will not respond further." He advised that "if you publish anything false or defamatory about Robert he will see you and the New Times in Court."
But through interviews with dozens of friends, old adversaries, associates, lawyers, ex-RTC officials and players throughout the banking, S&L and real estate industry, as well as from depositions and court papers littered throughout Arizona courts, this shrewdness has revealed itself as a sort of Burns survival mantra for the 1990s:
Lie low. If sued, countersue. If challenged, attack. Maintain the appearance of a major player. Be good to powerful friends and quality employees. Know thy enemy and thy potential investors and use what you know. Know everything about a deal. Take a Goldwater with you whenever possible. Keep making deals. Keep moving. Stay on task. Go, go, go. Never stop making deals.
Oh yeah, and dammit, if you lose something, get it back.
Robert Burns grew up in Coolidge, a small Arizona farming town that, like Buckeye, will fade away without realizing a great vision for the future.
His father was a part-time real estate appraiser, his mother a school teacher. They were poor. On occasion, the family had only potatoes from nearby farms for dinner.
He delivered papers before he was 10. By 12, he was working two jobs. By 16, he was buying watermelons from local farmers, loading up trucks and driving them to supermarkets in Tucson. He fixed up old homes in Coolidge. He skipped school because school meant nothing. He was going to make money.
His dad kicked him out of the house at age 15.
His principal graduated him and a few of his friends because the principal didn't want them back in school another year.
Old friends and ex-employees guess this upbringing was the wellspring of his motivation:
He was poor, so he worked to be rich.
He was dismissed by the authorities, so he worked to gain power.
He grew up without much culture, so he strove for culture.
But whatever the motivations for his great climb, old friends and ex-employees say, he was uniquely motivated.
"I have never seen anyone work as hard and well as Robert," says an ex-employee, who asked to remain unnamed.
Burns realized the real money was in real estate. He's told people he got his real estate license at 17 by claiming he was 18, the minimum age. His real estate instructor was Tom Hopkins, a guru of motivation and sales techniques. Burns floundered with the real estate minutiae but starred at mastering sales techniques.
He told Hopkins: "I'm going to break every [sales] record you ever [saw]." And Hopkins brushed him aside because he, like everyone else, underestimated Robert Burns.