The Chuck Feeney I Know.
I am sometimes asked, as Chuck Feeney’s biographer, what he is like as a person, and why he gave all his money away. His stock reply to the latter question is, “It was the right thing to do.” Of course there is more to it than that.
I first saw Chuck Feeney at a White House party to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in 1994. He was there as one of a group of unofficial American peacemakers on Northern Ireland. He looked rather embarrassed. Nobody could tell me much about him, other that he was very rich, though he was reputed to travel economy class and wear a plastic watch.
Years later I was introduced to him in New York. He began inviting me to lunch in PJ Clarke’s bar on 3rdAvenue. He liked to keep informed about Irish and American politics, and as North American editor of The Irish Times I could converse with him on both. It was always chicken hotpot and a glass of cheap white wine and wisecracks with the waiters.
Over time I got to know that he had become very wealthy selling duty-free goods worldwide and was a big-time anonymous philanthropist. As a journalist, I couldn’t not request a formal interview at some point. To my surprise he agreed. I asked him was it true that he always wore a cheap watch. He pulled up his sleeve to reveal a $15 Casio. “I have a spare. I’ll sell it to you,” he quipped. “I couldn’t afford it,” I replied.The interview was published in October 2003. It was his first public outing of himself. He revealed that he had secretly signed away his fortune to a foundation and was seeking good causes around the world. He had decided to go public for a couple of reasons: the foundation had grown too big to remain anonymous, and he wanted to promote his model of ‘giving while living’ to other people of great wealth.
After the article appeared I met Chuck again in PJ Clarke’s. He pushed a brown envelope across the table. “I want to thank you for the interview,” he said. “I can’t take that,” I said. “Go on, take it, no one is looking.” I pushed it back. He pushed it back. “At least open it,” he said. Inside was a plastic Casio watch. I still have it and it still keeps time17 years later.
I then suggested writing his biography, a big ask for a man who is naturally shy and modest. He demurred but he didn’t say no. I eventually sent him a formal proposal. I would finance the project (with the help of a publisher’s advance), and he in return would release his beneficiaries from vows of secrecy, let me travel with him, and provide access to his family.That’s it, I thought. He will never agree.
Next time in PJ Clarke’s I waited for his response. He didn’t mention the proposal. But as we parted on 3rdAvenue I asked, “Do you want more time to think about that other thing?” “No,” he said, “Let’s do it.”
So we did it. The first problem was getting a publisher. No one in New York publishing had heard of Chuck Feeney. Or me. I eventually persuaded Public Affairs to publish the life history of the New Jersey boy who had become a billionaire from nothing–a rollicking story worth a book in itself–and was giving it all away.
Chuck was as good as his word, or his three words. He released everyone from their seal of omerta. Almost every colleague,friend and beneficiary spoke of him with great affection, recalling his wry humour, his eccentricities and his generosity, though in business he could be stubborn and if crossed he was not very good at forgiveness. He remembered the names of employees in the stores and fussed about product displays. A fluent French speaker, he studied Japanese to communicate with purchasers. He was frugal –always ordering the second cheapest white wine on the menu –but he always picked up the bill. He was at his most articulate when deciding commercial matters, but personally he transmitted his thoughts to others by handing out cuttings from magazines expressing the same ideas.
As passionate as he was about making money, he hated wasting it,and he was obsessed with economizing. He used public transport, drove an old banger or rode at the back of the plane. Business meeting were held in hotel lobbies where coffee was free. But when a relative or employee was sick, no expense was spared.
It was not so easy to get Chuck to talk about himself. He has no ego, and consequently no gift of introspection. I pressed him to expand on his motivation for giving his fortune away, to get him to enlarge on his belief that “It was the right thing to do.” But why did he conclude it was the right thing to do?
It was clear that it was in his nature to help others; some people are just like that. But Chuck acknowledged he was strongly influenced by the example of his parents and his background. He grew up in a close-knit Irish-American neighbourhood in Elmora, New Jersey where people valued neighbourliness and public service. His father supported the less fortunate through the Knights of Saint Columbanus. His mother was a volunteer Red Cross nurse who discretely helped others. When a neighbour with motor neuron disease passed their house on the way to the bus stop, she would pick him up in the family car and pretend she was going in the same direction.
As he became wealthy, Chuck never adopted notions that his assets made him somehow superior to his relatives or former school pals. Always the sense of not being deserving came through. “I shouldn’t have an Ivy League education,” he once said. “I had no entitlement. Kids from Elmora went to St Mary’s, not Cornell.” When he visited his home town he came by train(never first class), an innocuous figure among the commuters in the station.
Chuck had a genius however that did set him apart. He knew how to make a buck. After serving in the military he got a GI scholarship to Cornell, a poor boy in a red-brick university. He kept himself in pocket by selling sandwiches to students, earning the nickname of “The Sandwich Man”. After graduation he set off to make his fortune in post-war Europe. With a fellow Cornell graduate,Robert Miller, he began flogging duty free booze and cars to the US fleet in the Mediterranean. In the early 1960s they acquired the concessions to operate the first duty-free shops in Hong Kong and Hawaii. In those days duty free was a huckster operation. The business exploded in the 1960swhen Japanese tourists began travelling in large numbers with pent-up savings. By the 1980s their company, Duty Free Shoppers, had become a roaring capitalistic venture and the pair were billionaires.
Feeney and his then-wife Danielle acquired mansions in the US and the French Riviera,and homes in several other international locations.But the more this restless, business-oriented “kid from Elmora” got rich, the more he became uncomfortable with the trappings of wealth:the yacht, the mansions, the tuxedo dinners and celebrity events.He was concerned that his five children would grow up with a sense of entitlement and that the money would spoil them (it didn’t). He was also apprehensive about ostentatious wealth making his children targets for kidnappers, a not-infrequent event at one time in Europe.
As his unease grew he discovered Carnegie’s Essay, ‘Wealth’ in which the Scots-American philanthropist wrote that the man who dies rich dies disgraced. He read of the advice given to Rockefeller that if he did not distribute his wealth in his lifetime it would destroy him and his family.
After some early experiments at philanthropy he made the big leap. On Friday, November 23rd 1984 he signed his DFS shares and multiple business and liquid asset she had acquired to the foundation he created in Bermuda($100 million and the family’s private properties went to Danielle,from whom he divorced in 1993). He set up a small foundation for the family so they could share the pleasure of giving.
After that Chuck stepped up his giving while continuing to run the business empire. The whole thing was kept secret. Not even his business partners knew he had was behind one of the world’s biggest philanthropic foundations. It didn’t bear his name –very unusual in the capitalist world–and it is today registered as Atlantic Philanthropies. He didn’t want any credit for doing good things. Nor did he allow his name to appear on building she funded (some two hundred to date) on five continents. He made big bets on universities, hospitals and medical research institutes. For years he portrayed himself as just the front man for a group of rich, concerned, Americans.
Not until he sold the DFS shares for $1.6 billion in cash in 1997 did a newspaper, the New York Times, reveal him to be the secret giver who had the philanthropic world buzzing. Jim Dwyer famously wrote that “Chuck Feeney is what Donald Trump would be if he lived his entire existence backward.” When he completed the deal, Feeney sent a cheque for $10,000 to everyone of the thousands of employees working in the duty free stores as a way of saying thank you.
With so much cash from the sale, Chuck began expanding his philanthropy.He was forever on a plane, scouring the world for big projects for his giving, seeking out leaders with visions for their universities or hospitals or research centres which he could help implement, while identifying good causes in social justice, advocacy and peace-making. As the beneficiary of a scholarship himself he was driven to help others through education. Ever the business entrepreneur, he cajoled governments to match his grants, thus multiplying his investments.
His beneficiaries revered him but he spurned expressions of gratitude. Once we visited together a hospital in Da Nang in Vietnam where the director, who realized he was the sole donor, began to thank him profusely for his funding. Chuck stopped him, saying, “You mustn’t thank me. It is I who has to thank you for doing good things with the money.”
Nothing gave him a better feeling of success that to see the results of his giving, whether the opening of a major world research centre, or the smile of a child who had corrective surgery for a facial deformation.
As the wealth of the foundation soared through shrewd investments, Chuck and the directors took the momentous decision to give everything away in his lifetime. Today’s problems need solving today, he would say. They could make big bets, while perpetual foundations restricted themselves to five percent of capital per year.
He didn’t preach but led by example. The wealthy should give while alive, he believed. “They will get a lot of fun doing so.Also, there are no pockets in a shroud.”
Chuck Feeney did achieve his aim of giving it all away, more than eight billion’s worth, by last year. Today, aged 88, he lives in a modest apartment in San Francisco with his wife Helga, whom he married in 1994. He is not surrounded by any of the trappings or trophies of wealth. Which is just how he wants it.