Born in 1969 to Edgar and Elsa Prince, Erik was their only son (he has three sisters) and grew up in Holland, Michigan, a conservative Dutch-immigrant enclave that could be the setting for a Norman Rockwell painting. Like many in business and politics, Prince wears his family's hard climb to success like a badge of honor. Edgar started his own company in 1965, and during Erik's early childhood, the family of six lived in a heavily mortgaged house about a third the size of his mother's current estate on Michigan's Lake Macatawa.
At the time of Edgar's near-fatal heart attack, he and his business partners had just developed their breakthrough product: a lighted sun visor with a mirror, first introduced in the 1973 Cadillac. More innovations followed, including a built-in garage-door opener, digital compass, and thermometer, which made Edgar Prince rich. What impressed Detroit the most was that Prince Industries invested its own money in R&D and often successfully predicted the little things that made the difference to the car-buying public.
Prince soaked up his dad's business philosophy around the dinner table. He also absorbed his father's focus on family. "My dad insisted on being home for all of my sporting events," he says. "He even kept a fleet of aircraft so his sales guys could be home from meetings in time for dinner."
From an early age, Erik liked to push his luck. As early as 12, he tested himself by sailing alone on Lake Michigan, and he ran a trap line in the cold Michigan winters. As a teen he was a cold-water diver for the sheriff's department (to find drowned snowmobilers) and a volunteer firefighter while attending Hillsdale College, a privately funded libertarian school in southern Michigan.
As he built his fortune, Prince's father became a prime mover in the Christian evangelical movement, his mother overseeing donations to James Dobson's Focus on the Family and other conservative political action groups. The relationships his father developed through his philanthropy not only informed Erik's worldview but also became important to his business prospects later. In 1990 Edgar secured Erik a low-level internship in the White House, but Prince soon quit for a much more exciting opportunity to intern for California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, Reagan's former speechwriter and an ex–freedom fighter against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Rohrabacher recalls that Prince, a "bright, driven young man," volunteered to search for a mass grave in Nicaragua to expose Marxist-turned-president Daniel Ortega as a killer. "I went down there with this other guy from Dana's office," Prince says. "It was the first time I had to shake a surveillance tail, from the Sandinistas." He was 21, eight days shy of his first wedding, and thrilling to his first taste of international intrigue. "We found a mass grave: bones sticking out of the ground, hands tied with wire at the wrists."
More adventure awaited him. Prince's initial goal was to become a Navy carrier pilot, but in the era of Tailhook, he was turned off by the frat-house antics at the naval academy. Switching to the Navy SEALs, he found his calling. But first he had to pass Basic Underwater Demolition School – one of the toughest selections in the military.
"The cool thing about the SEAL teams is that the only difference between enlisted men and officers is that the officer has a white stripe on his helmet," Prince says. He found in the SEALs both an outlet for his intensity and a credo for his entrepreneurial drive. "The sea is the most difficult environment to operate in – on land you have a few hours to sort out your problem, but if you have problems in the water, you're not going to live unless you sort them out in seconds."
In 1993 Prince joined SEAL Team 8, based out of Norfolk, Virginia. "I figured I would be a SEAL for the next 10 to 12 years. There wasn't much going on then. The invasion of Haiti was a non-event. It was mostly training, training, and more training. Had I stayed longer, I would have seen action, but things changed at home."
On March 2, 1995, Edgar Prince collapsed from another heart attack and died. Later that same year, Prince's wife, pregnant with their second child, received a cancer diagnosis. Prince finished out his fifth year as a SEAL but returned to civilian life sooner than he'd planned. "You roll with the punches," he says stoically.?For the next eight years, his wife struggled with cancer, until she passed away in 2003. He refuses to elaborate but allows that "the saddest moment of my life was her funeral." He was 34.
When the Prince Group sold in 1996, one year after Edgar's death, it garnered $1.35 billion. Though split between several of his dad's business partners, numerous employee stockholders, his mother, three siblings, and him, the windfall still set Prince up for life. "My SEAL friend suggested that maybe I should invest the money, kick back, and live off the interest," Prince says, in a rare moment of reflection. "In hindsight that wasn't such bad advice." Instead, he created the ultimate boys club in a North Carolina swamp.