01/16/2013 04:17 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

One In Five Florida Millionaires Grew Up In Poverty: Survey

They grew up in modest circumstances, saved their money or launched profitable businesses and still lead middle-class lives, shopping at Kohl's rather than Neiman Marcus.

A recent annual survey of high-net-worth individuals offered a glimpse into some of the "quiet millionaires" living among us in South Florida and the state -- with many saying their financial situation growing up was "average."

Florida's millionaires were more than twice as likely not to be born wealthy than their counterparts throughout the rest of the nation; many even struggled as youngsters, according to results released by the PNC Wealth Management.

Some are unlikely millionaires who prefer to live undetected in South Florida -- from educators to retired factory workers.

Helen Stoykov, who helped build the engines in B-26 bombers during World War II, for example, left more than $1 million to the Community Foundation of Broward when she died at age 93.

"She had a very meager beginning. Her father died so she had to go to work at young age," said Kathie Weiss, who helped Stoykov in her later years. Stoykov, of Pompano Beach, and her late husband "lived very simple lives," Weiss added. "They loved each other."

Fort Lauderale's H. Wayne Huizenga never had much money growing up, driving a truck and pumping gas as a teenager. In fact, he started Waste Management with one garbage truck -- what became the first of three Fortune 500 companies he would control.

PNC Wealth Management has an office in Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale and is among the nation's top 10 bank-owned wealth management firms. Every year the firm commissions a survey on the nation's wealthy. Last year, for example, it found that most of the wealthy are philanthropists.

This year, with interviews with 560 confirmed millionaires -- 97 percent of them in Florida -- the survey found that only a few were born to privilege -- 12 percent nationally and 5 percent in Florida. The overwhelming majority came from average or even poor backgrounds.

Nearly one of five Floridian millionaires said they grew up in poverty and had to climb up to prosperity the hard way, the survey found.

"We see a lot of mobility because in Florida there's not a lot of inherited wealth," that's seen in other large states such as New York, said Jorge Salazar-Carrillo, economics professor who directs the Center of Economic Research at Florida International University. "Most [Floridians] build small businesses into large enterprises."

Some South Florida families who have famous entrepreneurs have their own careers and live off incomes instead of inheritances.

"We are understated," said luxury real estate saleswoman Nancy Batchelor, whose late father-in-law George was a noted South Florida aviation entrepreneur and philanthropist. He emphasized giving to the community -- and the family has continued that tradition by overseeing a foundation in his name, she said.

Batchelor gave away most of his money to charity, including $15 million to the University of Miami School of Medicine to build the Batchelor Children's Research Institute.

South Florida also has especially been good for strivers to start companies -- and fortunes.

"We tend to grow wealth and are a very entrepreneurial community," said Tony Villamil, an economics professor and dean of the Business School at St. Thomas University. "We are kind of like a frontier town --people come here to make a fortune."

For example, Mike Fernandez, who arrived here as an impoverished boy from Cuba, made millions when he sold Physicians Healthcare Plans and then CarePlus Health Plans.

Over the years, Fernandez said he has been able to build a strong financial network and didn't have a problem raising money for his private equity fund, MBF Healthcare Partners.

"It's been fairly easy," Fernandez said. "Our investors know we have real skin in the game."

In fact, many Latin Americans are attracted to South Florida because they know their investments won't be confiscated from the government during a junta, Fernandez added.

Mike Tomas, an entrepreneur who is now president of Sunrise-based Bioheart, said his father came to South Florida from the Dominican Republic after the military seized his holdings. "He lost everything," Tomas said. But his father started again. "He was a serial entrepreneur," Tomas said, and eventually rebuilt his wealth.

Tomas himself worked his way up, first at a telecom company and now at Bioheart, a biomedical company that wants to use stem cells to repair damaged hearts.

"It's the immigrant mentality -- you have to do it on your own," Tomas said.

Batchelor said she and her husband Jon has followed his father's steps of requiring the new generation to work and not count on gifts.

"I find that if you get a pony for free you don't appreciate it," Batchelor said. or Twitter @donnagehrke ___

See who leads the way to the bank in Florida, according to Forbes:

Florida's Richest People