The woman with money to give away

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 October, 1993, 12:00am

MOST people who pass through Rebecca Paul's professional life have dollars signs in their eyes.

Ms Paul has the enviable job of playing Santa Claus. For the past 10 years, she turns ordinary folk into millionaires as the creator and director of some of America's most lucrative state lotteries.

For many years, it was impossible for the Indiana-born businesswoman to walk through any airport concourse in Illinois without strangers coming up to her.

''They'd gasp and say: 'Oh, Rebecca, let me touch you for luck.' Her former position as director of the Illinois State lottery made her face a familiar one on the television news.

''Running a lottery is just like running a Fortune 500 company,'' said Ms Paul, who was in Hong Kong recently as a guest-speaker at the 12th annual InterToto Conference, an international convention of lottery organisers held at the Convention Centre.

''We do sales in excess of billions per year. But unlike most Fortune 500 companies, mine doesn't start out slow.

''When I was hired to start up the Georgia State lottery last spring, we didn't have an office, a staff, not even a paper clip.

''Within 62 days, we got our act together.'' And made $52 million the first week.

The former advertising executive is credited with changing the image of state lotteries - from the perception of legalised gambling to spectacular media events.

When you ask her for some rags-to-riches stories, the name Mike is the first to spill from her glossy red lips. ''Mike was something else,'' she says in a tone reserved for close friends.

It was in the late 80s and Ms Paul was running the Illinois State Lottery. Mike was then a strapping 28-year-old bachelor, a printer from a small town outside Chicago. He snagged US$40 million.

''When Mike arrived for the award ceremony, he came with beer on his breath and one in his hand.

''When we met a few years later at the annual millionaires reunion, Mike hadn't changed.

''He married his girlfriend, quit his job and bought a liquor store with his brother.

''Now he's selling lottery tickets and still drinking beer.'' Then there was Sheila, a middle-aged spinster from Florida who walked away with $56 million.

''She was a fire-cracker with an outrageous personality. Her quotes to the press made national television.'' But there was more to her than clever one-liners. She created a foundation for abused women and children.

''The last time I saw her she was painting her office building. When I asked why she didn't hire someone to do it, she said it would be a waste. The money could be put to better use.'' Dennis, a US$15-million winner from Ohio, set up trust funds for his kids, never moved from his original home and accepted a position from the lottery to be their television spokesperson.

By winning US$10 million in a Florida lottery, one student jump-started his career. Carlos, a 23-year-old Cuban-born graduate student, used part of his winnings to buy a partnership in an architectural firm.

The behaviour patterns of the winners is the same, says Ms Paul and David Gale, a friend and colleague. For six years Gale handed over thousands of seven-digit cheques as marketing director for the Ohio State lottery.

''If couples had a lousy marriage before winning, money didn't improve things,'' she says.

When winners receive their first cheques, they blow it all, recalls Gale. ''They buy a new house, a new car, get an unlisted phone number and take a trip, usually Hawaii.

''By the second cheque, they become serious. They start planning.

''We advise winners to hire financial experts and lawyers. But get advice from people they've known a long time. After you win, everyone wants to help.'' Eighty per cent of the winners agree financial security for the kids is the best part of winning.

The hardest part is getting used to life in a fish bowl. The instant media attention changes everything.

''If winners shopped at discount stores before winning, they usually go back,'' adds Paul.

The age 58 is a special cut-off. Winners younger than 58 continue working. They usually buy the company or go to school. People over 58, retire.

Paul's affairs with the instant rich and soon-to-be famous are not hour-long flings.

''They send me Christmas cards and pictures of the kids. When a clothing salesman from Indiana won US$10 million, he described himself to the media as a frugal type. His only indulgence since the jackpot was buying a lady a dozen red roses.'' Rebecca Paul was touched by the bouquet.

''The money changes people superficially,'' continues Gale. ''When I hand out the first cheque, they're dressed in polyester. When you see them months later, they're not.

''Winning US$10,000 or US$10 million is a life-altering event. But nowadays, the public has become jaded.

''Years ago, a lottery with US$8 million was a big deal. Today, it has to be at least US$50 million to warrant a press conference.'' Regardless, winning the lottery is magic. Putting average people, money and media together makes a great show, a vicarious thrill.

Gale says turning over cheques for millions was the best job he ever had. ''If I can't be rich, I might as make people rich.'' Both Paul and Gale enjoy playing other states' lotteries. When Ms Paul read in a newspaper that she won US$500, she screamed. ''I was in a plane. People thought I was nuts.'' When Gale won US$200, he took his family to an expensive restaurant.

''But I ended up kicking in some extra money. These days, feeding six is expensive.''