Barry Liben was on his own at the age of 15. He never finished high school or attended college. To this day, he doesn't have the patience to read a book.
<p>But he reads the Economist, Forbes, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair and all the travel publications. He reads blogs and online content. He reads newspapers -- "ferociously," he said, "since I was 6."
Liben started his working career in a sub-basement beneath a Brooklyn deli. His parents' marriage had broken up, and his younger brother was getting into trouble on the streets of Brooklyn. So his father moved to Madison, Wis., where Liben's older brother was in college. It looked safer.
But Liben had no desire to move to Madison, so he stayed in the family apartment, dropped out of school and took three jobs: handing out leaflets for a deli, delivering meat for a butcher and working three floors below ground for a frozen foods company.
But he was also very involved with a Jewish organization called Betar. It ran a sleepaway camp, which he'd started attending at age 4.
"Think my parents were trying to get rid of me?" he asks. "I love sleepaway camp. I think it is the greatest thing in the world for children."
He started out as a camper, became a counselor and by age 17, he was director of a camp with 350 kids and 200 staff. Off-season, he'd recruit campers, regaling families with stories about the camp.
"I was making $400 a month," he said. "Rent was $112, so I could live like a king in Brooklyn in a fourth-floor walkup."
It's been nearly 40 years since he ran that camp (it closed in 1977, a year after he left). But he said that not a month goes by without his hearing from a former camper.
"Someone will come up to me and say, 'Do you remember me from the summer of 1973? It was the greatest summer of my life!'" Liben said, adding that hundreds of people came to the camp's reunion 10 or 15 years ago.
"I don't think I've loved anything more than being a camp director, other than being a father and grandfather," he said.
At age 25, he married Sindy Bachner, "the love of my life" and a woman he had met at camp as a young girl.
Sindy said that even today, many of their closest friends date back to their camp days.
There was a small agency, Tzell Travel, next to Betar's offices in Manhattan. It made most of its money selling tickets to Israel. Liben was friendly with the manager; they'd talk sports, and Liben and his friends would book the occasional $299 package to Vegas through Tzell.
Liben took stock of his skills. He had little formal learning, just his "education of the streets." Nevertheless, Tzell's manager invited Liben to join the business.
"He said, 'We're looking for a partner. If you have $20,000, we'll sell you a quarter of the business,'" Liben recalled. "I said, 'Fantastic! I have two minor problems. One, what is a travel agency? Two, my total net worth is $414.'"
Negotiations ended before they began.
"But life is so interesting," Liben mused recently. Three months later, his father's twin brother killed himself and left Liben $35,000, enough to make a down payment on a house --in those days, you could get a house in New Jersey for $75,000 -- and maybe buy into the travel agency, as well.
He persuaded Tzell to let him buy in with $10,000 up front and another $10,000 if he liked working there. It was only then, however, that he discovered the agency was $450,000 in debt -- one-and-a-half times its total annual sales -- and interest rates in 1977 were 17.5%.
"My wife, thank God, was a registered nurse," Liben said. "At least she had a salary."
Taking over the agency, he went about diversifying the business and bulking it up. But in the meantime, making ends meet required nonstop work for Liben and Sindy.
"He drove a cab at night, and I tried to work as many double shifts as they would let me," Sindy recalled recently. She worked at Lenox Hill and Sloan-Kettering hospitals.
Still, they turned the agency around and made it a successful enterprise that would go on to spawn myriad other agencies.
Over the years, the couple had three children and two grandchildren. Liben has told his kids he wants 10 grandchildren.
"Two have to have three, and one has to have four," he said.
Sindy sighs when she hears that. And then she laughs.
"He's just driven," she said. "He gives 1,000% to everything in his life. He doesn't know how to do anything halfway."
Liben's genius may lie in what Michael Batt, founder and chairman of Travel Leaders Group, calls his "exceptional intuition."
"If you were trying to summarize him, it would be his combination of extreme intelligence, tremendous intuition and determination and hard work," Batt said. "He is a real people person."
Jerry Behrens, who went to work for Liben shortly after commission caps hit and is today senior vice president of strategic development for Travel Leaders Group, said, "Barry is a very smart guy. His real strength is being able to read people."
He thinks Liben's background as a camp director is one reason he has a knack for dealing with a variety of individuals in a number of ways.
And then, there's his sense of humor.
"We are married 36 years, together 43 years," Sindy said. "If you can't laugh, I don't know how you stay together. And he makes me laugh."
Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.