Lessons on empire-building from real estate developer Rick Caruso

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso learned about entrepreneurship and money at an early age.

His father, Henry Caruso, founded Dollar Rent A Car in 1966, building it up into one of the largest U.S. car rental companies

while teaching his family some important finance lessons that stuck.

“Even though we never grew up feeling poor, we always grew up with a great sense of the importance of money and hard work,” Caruso said.

His privately held company, Caruso Affiliated, owns some of the highest-grossing retail centers in the world.

Caruso, 58, has also been an active civic leader and philanthropist in Los Angeles, where he grew up and is based. He is a former president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners and was a commissioner on the Department of Water and Power.

The father of four recently chatted with Reuters about life lessons he has learned along the way.

Q: What shaped you early on?

A: I grew up in a pretty traditional Italian household. My grandparents were immigrants, my grandfather was a gardener and my dad started his own company.

My parents were very careful about money. It was instilled in us to be wise about how you spend your money and where you invest it. And I was taught that an education is the most important thing.

Q: What was your first job?

A: In high school, I had a job at the car rental company, washing and fueling cars and getting them ready. The best way to learn about money is having to go out and earn it, especially when it includes manual labor and you realize the amount of work it took to get the money you made. That lays the groundwork for your future.

Q: What did you learn from starting your own company?

A: Sometimes the best entrepreneurs are innovators because they have to use their money wisely. When I started the company, we didn’t have a lot of money, and so I had to be very creative with how I designed things, built things and marketed them.

I think if I was given a ton of cash, that would have been a very different company than what I have today. Money can be a great motivator, but it can also work against motivation and creativity.

Q: As the business took off, what did you learn about handling wealth?

A: It’s important not to ever become complacent. Being complacent is a very dangerous thing when you have capital.

You’ve got to have the ability to plan long-term and realize that there is always a downturn. There’s usually a 10-year cycle, but people have eight-year memories. They always forget that down the road something is going to change.

Q: How involved is your family in charity, and what are you hoping to instill in your four children about giving back?

A: Charity is critically important, and I’ve instilled that in my kids. They do volunteer work at Skid Row. It’s not only about giving money but working and being present. I’ve seen what it’s done for my kids: It’s taught them gratitude and humility.

For families that grow up with success, being a part of philanthropy is what grounds you. Everything that I’ve done (in charity) revolves around youth.

We’ve focused on education and also healthcare, which has been driven by our daughter, who has hearing loss. She’s had access to great medical care, but there are thousands of kids in Los Angeles who don’t have access to that.

Editing by Beth Pinsker and Lisa Von Ahn