Houston & Peach

He grew up poor in Fort Valley, even flunked the ninth grade. Now he's a millionaire

On a beautiful recent day, Dr. Vernard Hodges sat by the pool behind his 7,400-square-foot home and talked about how easily his life could have veered in an entirely different direction.

He grew up dirt poor in Fort Valley, hung out with drug dealers and failed the ninth grade. Yet he went on to become a veterinarian with a thriving practice, and he's a successful real estate investor too.

He is no house flipper, though. He buys properties that need work, makes the improvements, then rents them. He now owns more than 100 homes and apartment units.

In December, he published a book about his life story, called "Bet on Yourself, From Zero to Millions." It is an autobiography, self-help, rags-to-riches adventure story with a how-to on the stock market, real estate investing, business and personal finance. Much of it has the tone of a father passing on life advice to his child.

Hodges figured he might sell 100 copies. As of last week, he had sold more than 6,000 copies. The book has 80 reviews on Amazon and all but one gave it five stars. That one gives it four stars and says only good things about it. Reviewers laud it for being easy to read and providing simple explanations on complicated subjects, such as the stock market and how to set up a business.

Many readers also liked its honesty in that Hodges talks about his failures as much as he does his successes.

One person who has read the book is Chuck Shaheen, a former Warner Robins mayor and councilman. Shaheen said he started his own business as a direct result of reading the book.

"I couldn’t put the book down," Shaheen said. "It’s a book about failure and about overcoming. People fail one time and they never get back up again. It motivated me."

Hodges starts right off by admitting that he failed the ninth grade. Yes, the man who would go on to get a college degree and become a veterinarian had to go to summer school on the sly to move up to the 10th grade. He told his mother he had a job picking peaches, then she started asking why he didn't have any money.

Hodges said he wrote the book because he wanted young people in situations similar to his to know that they can have a better future.

"People see me now and they see somebody they think is polished, some smart guy who has it all together, when it hasn't always been that way," he said.

Almost caught in The Trap

In high school, he hung out in an area of Fort Valley called The Trap, where drug dealing and other illicit activities took place. One of his best friends, whom he refers to in the book by the pseudonym "Marvin," is in prison today. Hodges still keeps in touch with him. While Hodges didn't deal drugs himself, he once held some crack cocaine for Marvin. Hodges hid it in the washing machine, and his mother washed clothes before he could retrieve it, destroying Marvin's crack.

Marvin laughed it off, but later, when Hodges was in college, Marvin gave him $290,000 to hold. Hodges did, returned it and Marvin was later arrested with it and lost his money.

"I was close to falling on that side of the track," Hodges said. "I could have been Marvin. It kind of told me I’ve got to turn my life around and find something."

Hodges didn't know his biological father, but his mother married a Japanese man who took great interest in him. Hodges credited that as a big part of helping get his life turned around.

He eventually enrolled at Fort Valley State University, pursued a degree in fisheries and marine biology, and ended up traveling to far-flung locations as a part of research teams. One of his trips included going with a team to Napal, India, to help locals learn how to feed themselves by raising carp, which he said is still practiced there today.

Later, he decided to go to veterinary school, and he got his degree from the Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine.

He worked for another veterinarian after getting his degree, then ended up starting his own practice with Terrence Ferguson in Byron. They called it Critter Fixer. Later, they opened a second location in Bonaire, where Hodges works today while Ferguson operates the Byron location.

In the process of buying the land and buildings for their veterinary practice, Hodges learned about real estate and renovation work, which he did himself. He later started buying and renovating homes and even an apartment complex. Instead of trying to turn around the buildings for a quick profit, he keeps them and rents them out.

He also started dabbling in the stock market. At the end of 2007, he started an E*Trade account with $90,000. In a few months it had grown to about $1.5 million, and Hodges thought he was a stock market genius.

Then came the crash of Sept. 29, 2008. Hodges lost $1 million.

He still invests in the stock market, but he prefers more stable, long-term investments over trying to buy and sell for a quick profit.

One message he stresses repeatedly in the book is the importance of reading. He grew up knowing nothing about stocks or investing, but through reading, he said, he has come to learn the things that wealthy people teach their children.

While he was still reeling from his stock market loss, he found a large house in Warner Robins that had been left half-finished. It was "a monstrosity," he says in the book, and his neighbors wanted it torn down.

He bought it for $160,000, built a swimming pool behind it himself, and finished it with a total investment of $420,000. It was valued at $900,000.

It's the house he lives in today.