Integrity, Honor, & Legacy: From Winning the Lottery to Transforming His Community

Carlyn Crawley

Integrity, Honor, & Legacy: From Winning the Lottery to Transforming His Community

I grabbed a salad and some green tea. I sat in a conference room and my nerves took over as I prepared for my first interview. I called at 1:29 pm and hung up before the first ring for fear of appearing too eager. I called back at 1:30 pm on the dot and announced to the pleasant voice on the other end that I had a 1:30 pm with Mr. Pilgram.

“Mr. Pilgram” being Miguel Pilgram, the Navy veteran who won $52 million in the lottery and used his winnings to launch a major redevelopment of the historic Sistrunk Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. When I read his story, I was immediately curious about who he was and what drives him. After starting the interview, it became immediately clear how powerfully everything in his past drives his present. His entire life was purpose driven; it built up to not just winning the lottery but using winnings to fulfill desires he was already putting in motion. If you google an article about him, you will likely see “integrity and honor” mentioned at some point. The mantra describes how he has raised his children, how he runs his business, and how he treats people.

Miguel grew up a bit of a nomad saying “growing up a Navy kid, I was born in LA and lived in Dallas and Chicago then Memphis for high school.” He describes his parents as the most influential people in shaping his values. His father served in the Navy but always had different points of income and sold different things. His mother was an academic who ensured he had a religious foundation. He excelled in school, especially in physics, but decided to enlist in the Navy so that he could see more of the world. “I wanted to travel and where I come from, if you want to travel and you don’t have any money, that’s what you do.” Following his tour in the Navy, he considered college but didn’t see the financial benefit, noticing that “everyone [he knew] who has a degree doesn’t make a lot of money.” Instead, Miguel pursued a career in casino security with the goal of becoming a manager by 30. It didn’t take him long to realize that goal.

Eventually, he networked his way into a job in China. In between accepting the job offer and leaving Memphis, he was shot trying to break up a fight he saw from his car.  Miguel was leaving his part-time job at a local bar when he saw the man being assaulted. “I am combat trained and there are somethings I just cannot drive past. I pulled over, pulled the guy off of the other guy and before he ran off, he turned around and shot me.” As he lay on the ground he thought “this is not the end.” Miguel more rooted in his faith during that time saying “you have to be careful when people claim to be people of faith. A lot of people around me thought I should turn down the job after what happened. For me, it created more urgency to go.” He was not at all discouraged and took a moment to caution against “people of doubt that push you into fear because when you succeed, it’s already by design.” Even though it took him four months to recover, the company in China held the job for him. “I learned that the Chinese are very loyal to the business, which matched with how I was raised.”

Miguel’s time in China was not perfect for the quality of life was very different. “I had to live through the differences in China. I was 6’3-6’4 and sleeping in very small quarters. The food took some getting used to but there was no way that I was going back to the states without having to succeed in my plan. I never gave up the mission. Other people would have quit but I knew the long-range plan.” His biggest takeaway, though, was learning more communal ways of doing business and building family wealth. He noticed that the Chinese don’t rely on retirement communities because when older people retire, they stay around to help raise their grandchildren. “I met several couples who worked on the ship months at a time and sent money back home. They understand business at a young age. They grind every day of the week. Kids go to school 11 months out of the year. They pass on wealth and real estate like nobody’s business. I said if I ever got the chance, I’m going into the real estate business.

The lessons learned caused him to reflect on his own upbringing saying, “My father didn’t know how to save. My mother knew how to budget but not invest.” He advises people not to make excuses around investing, “if you know how to save, you can eventually invest. Collectively, the Chinese are masters at working together to achieve the means at the end. I was very inspired to bring those lessons back to people in my family, culture, and country.”

Fast forward a few years and Miguel was unknowingly on the brink of winning the lottery. He believes the divine order was at work leading up to the life-changing event. When asked about his lifestyle at the time, he said, “I was recently divorced. I was working on my credit, saving money, and had bought a {Mercedes} Benz so I was doing okay. I’ll never say I’m successful, but I had a few accomplishments.” He was working for Norwegian Cruise Line. He had moved up the ranks over the years and was selected to assist when the company was acquired by Star Cruises.

During this time, he met a few people that, unbeknownst to Miguel, were sowing advice into him that he would need later. He had an awesome mentor, a Navy Seal, who was also his director. He describes the time working for him as “a phenomenal opportunity to gain knowledge around managing a $20 million budget, having executives working for you and learning how to play the corporate game. He also taught me that you want to be able to close your eyes and have money coming in.” A co-worker recommended a book that Miguel found highly influential. She gave him the book “The Science of Getting Rich” by Wallace D. Wattles. He says, “It’s only 100 pages maybe. The person who gave it to me insisted but I thought “why would I read it when you don’t look rich to me?” He continued, “she was always on the grind like I was but money was never something she didn’t seem to have. I just assumed she was a hustler. Eventually, I read it. I would get up, pray every morning, then read the book.”

The book encouraged Miguel to be relentlessly optimistic and it showed the week leading up to winning the lottery. He was dealing with an antagonistic manager but refused to let that deter him. “One day he comes up to me and asks why I am so positive all the time. I looked at him and explained that I get up every day and make a choice to be positive. I make a choice to be happy.” It even influenced the way he viewed his commute, remembering that, “usually when I’m in my car, I’m moving at a very high speed to get to work. One day, I moved to the center lane, slowed down, and let the other cars speed by me. I told myself, I’m not doing that anymore because the work will come to me very soon.” And finally, Miguel decided to buy his own ticket from a Shell gas station. He said, “The book said to be conscious of whatever was in front of you, so I slept with the ticket under my pillow every night. Subconsciously,  I was looking at $52 million dollars. You will get what you visualize every day.”

And then it happened. He won the Florida Lotto jackpot, taking home a lump sum of $29,244,436.00. He told the Florida Lottery that he initially thought he only won $52,000. Once he realized the impact of what happened, he quickly re-centered himself. He continued to work another 5-6 months until he finished the project he was working on. When people asked why, Miguel said “When you give someone your word, no condition other than life itself should deter you. You don’t abandon ship.”

His first order of business was to build his team in real estate, which consisted of different family members. He founded the Pilgram Group and purchased a 16-unit apartment building for $1 million dollars. It wasn’t a smooth start. Over Christmas break, Miguel got a call from the police. With nostalgia, Miguel remembers, “They were trying to put a lien on the building I just bought for trash. I had just sent my team home and didn’t want them to fly back but when I went over there, there were two dumpsters worth of trash. I thought this can’t be the real estate business! This is terrible! But as a military man, I thought the mission must be achieved.” He worked tirelessly, alone, to clean up the area. “I still have pictures of me with over 30 bags of trash alone. Eventually, I said, if this is what it takes, I’m ready.”

And he was ready. From then on, Miguel and his team worked hard to continue developing multi-family properties in Florida, as well as open a food truck and New York Subs & Wings. He’s also launching a line of men’s shirts and accessories. Later in 2018, he’s opening a jazz lounge and eventually a performing arts center. Even his two children are ready to work. His son will be leaving the Navy soon to apprentice with him. His daughter, an aspiring attorney, often models for his clothing line.

I asked Miguel how his life changed since winning the lottery. He told me “I work more hours but I’m not forced to work those hours. I just know that it’s what is needed to complete the mission.”

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Integrity, Honor, & Legacy: From Winning the Lottery to Transforming His Community