For that blind first date, a half-century ago, the young doctor, Phillip Frost, showed up at Patricia Orr’s family house in suburban New York, with an unusual gift: a miniature mushroom garden.
In the 50 years since, Frost, the son of a shoe store owner, has gone on to amass a fortune of $2.4 billion, according to Forbes magazine, becoming the 188th wealthiest man in the United States by developing and selling pharmaceutical companies. Along the way, he and Patricia have become major philanthropists in Miami-Dade County and they’ve signed a pledge to give away at least $1 billion more.
“He’s a relentless guy,” says Miami banker Bill Allen, who’s know him for more than 40 years. “He’s not afraid to take risks. ... He knows the intimate details of the chemistry of products, and he’s the kind of guy who can examine 50 deals while eating a sandwich.”
CNBC’s Jim Cramer recently praised Frost’s “incredible track record” for developing companies, calling Frost’s latest endeavor, OPKO Health, a “very risky” investment while noting it could offer huge gains under Obamacare.
But back in 1962, Patricia’s first impression was that Phil Frost was a bit of a nerd, finishing his medical internship with a strong interest in research — including mushrooms. She figured an academic career loomed.
“My mother was very impressed,” recalls Patricia, not so much by the M.D. behind Frost’s name but by the gift, something more serious than the usual flowers or candy. Serious was fine with Patricia, who was living at home while working toward a master’s degree in education at Columbia University. For their first date, they listened to a classical music concert.
Frost’s rise to riches may seem highly distinctive, but in an odd coincidence he has much in common with another prominent Miamian. Frost, 76, and car dealer Norman Braman, 80, both frequently appear on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. Both grew up in Philadelphia — Frost the son of a man who sold shoes, Braman son of a barber. Both are Jewish, well-known art collectors and philanthropists.
“He’s an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur,” says Braman. “We have a lot in common, coming from very poor families. But he went to Central High (a public school for exceptional students) and I was not qualified to go there.”
There are other differences. While Braman is voluble and highly visible in the causes he supports, Frost tends to be a reticent, almost shy speaker, given to careful pauses.
Told that a former colleague had called Frost “lucky,” Frost thought for a long moment. He could have cited many national business stories about his business acumen. Instead, he responded crisply: “I’ll be satisfied with lucky. I benefited from chance meetings.”
Frost spent his first years living above the shoe shop within an Italian market in South Philly. His two brothers were 15 and 16 years older. “I was an afterthought.”
The family was religiously observant, and Frost recalls his father singing him songs in Yiddish when he was small. He lived at home while attending the University of Pennsylvania, except for a year abroad in France. He took many science courses, but his major was French literature.