James didn't set out to be wealthy, and his life hasn't changed all that much now that he is. Although he makes more than $300,000 a year, he doesn't think of himself as "rich."
"I think of myself as a worker," he says. "I historically haven't taken a lot of time off."
He spoke about his life on the condition that Isthmus wouldn't reveal his identity or give away personal details. He says he loves his job and would be doing it even if it hadn't brought financial reward.
James grew up lower-middle-class and was the first in his family to attend college. He worked his way through school, operating a drill press in a factory to pay about half his way. His parents paid the other half.
His first job out of college in the early '70s was in the Madison area and paid $13,000 a year. When he started his own business, he was bringing home only about $6,000 a year.
But in this rags-to-riches story, James admits he wasn't necessarily frugal or smart in how he spent money.
"My wife would tell you I've always been a little capricious about money," he says, recalling one time when he bought five music CDs "when I didn't know how the electric bill was going to get paid."
On the contrary, he says one thing that helped him succeed was his ability to take risks. "I have an appetite for risk that other people don't have," he says. "You have to understand the risk and be confident that you can control the outcome. You can't be paralyzed by it."
In doing so, James admits he had to make sacrifices, working long hours. But he made sure to balance those periods of constant work by spending time with his family. Being able to keep his own hours helped.
As he became successful, he took on more responsibilities: more projects, more employees, more stress. During one project in the 1980s, James remembers suffering regular anxiety attacks. Through it all, he realized that "you can have a comfortable life for a while, but it's really hard to sustain success over the long term."
James feels the most important ingredients for his success were education, hard work and a vision. He knows that recipe "is grossly unrealistic for large segments of the population." Some people have unimaginable hardships to cope with, such as health or family problems.
James never forgets that there are poor people in Madison. "I am very aware of people who are struggling," he says. "There clearly is a divide."
What advice does he have for those who suddenly find themselves with a financial windfall? "Don't significantly change your lifestyle, create a safety net for your children, do something you always dreamed of doing but could never afford, and figure out how you can use your windfall to make your community a better place." - J.T.