Thursday 24 May 2018

Rushing to give it all away

Irish-American billionaire, who flies economy class and wears cheap watches, aims to have donated whole fortune by 2016

This week Atlantic Philanthropies, the charitable organisation founded and funded by Irish-American billionaire Chuck Feeney, announced that it would give away all of its money by 2016.

Philanthropy is a well-established tradition in American business life. In previous generations, wealthy families such as the Fords, the Rockefellers and the Carnegies donated most of their wealth to charitable foundations.

This tradition has continued to the present day with financier Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill Gates both announcing that they will give most of their money away rather than leave it to their heirs.

Mr Buffett has famously said that he would leave his children "enough money so they would feel they can do anything but not so much that they could do nothing".

In a week that saw the squalid death of Eva Rausing, wife of Hans-Kristian Rausing, heir to the €5bn Tetra Pak fortune, this desire on the part of some billionaires to give their money away rather than bequeath it to potentially feckless offspring is not so surprising.

Admirable as Messrs Buffett and Gates generosity has been, it pales into insignificance by comparison to what Irish-American Charles "Chuck" Feeney has been doing for the past 30 years.

Foundations

While the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations continue to operate decades after the deaths of the entrepreneurs whose fortunes originally funded these charitable organisations, as no doubt will the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to which Messrs Buffett and Gates have pledged most of their wealth, Mr Feeney hopes that Atlantic Philanthropies, which he founded in 1984, will have given away all of his wealth by 2016 and cease operations entirely by 2020.

By that time Atlantic, which has already given away $5.5bn over the past three decades and still has $2bn of assets, will have donated close to $8bn to good causes.

Mr Feeney describes his philosophy as one of "giving while living". When establishing Atlantic Philanthropies he wrote to its board that: "I believe that people of substantial wealth potentially create problems for subsequent generations unless they themselves accept responsibility to use their wealth during their lifetime to help worthwhile causes."

So who is Chuck Feeney and how did he acquire the wealth to fund his remarkable generosity?

Mr Feeney was born into a blue-collar family in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in April 1931. The son of a Co Fermanagh-born father he served with the US Air Force as a radio operator during the Korean War and afterwards availed of the GI Bill, under which the Federal government pays the college fees and living expenses of military veterans to attend New York's Cornell University from which he graduated with a degree in hotel management in 1956. He was the first member of his family to attend university.

After graduating, Mr Feeney, along with Robert Miller, a fellow-Cornell graduate, hit upon the idea of selling duty-free booze to American servicemen in Europe. The idea was a success and they soon started selling perfume and electrical goods also.

In 1960 the duo relocated to Hong Kong. This was at the dawn of the jet age and Japan was gradually removing restrictions on its citizens travelling overseas.

They opened duty-free shops in Hong Kong and Hawaii targeting the emerging Japanese market. Mr Feeney learned to speak Japanese and cut deals with tour guides to encourage them to bring their groups to his shops.

Their firm Duty Free Shoppers (DFS) rapidly expanded throughout the Pacific Rim. It now has 16 upmarket department stores and more than 20 airport shops. DFS made Mr Feeney a billionaire several times over. As far back as 1988 'Forbes' magazine estimated his net worth at $1.3bn.

'Forbes', although it couldn't have known it at the time, was wrong. As someone who has always shunned the trappings of wealth, Mr Feeney doesn't drive a car, always flies economy class and famously eschews the Rolex watches sold by DFS in favour of a cheap $15 timepiece, he felt uncomfortable possessing such enormous wealth.

In 1984, two years after establishing Atlantic Philanthropies, Mr Feeney irrevocably transferred his 38.75pc stake in DFS to the charitable foundation. Mr Feeney was, to paraphrase the title of his authorised biography, the billionaire who wasn't.

Despite being one of the best-endowed charitable foundations in North America, Atlantic Philanthropies managed to fly under the radar undetected for almost a decade-and-a-half.

Unsolicited requests for donations were rejected and all payments were made by cashier's cheque (known as bank drafts on this side of the Atlantic), which of course concealed the identity of the payee.

Atlantic Philanthropies only came to public attention in 1997 when Mr Feeney decided to sell the DFS shares he had transferred to the foundation to luxury goods company LVMH for $3.5bn, a move which was opposed by Mr Miller who sued Mr Feeney.

The legal action meant that it was inevitable his decision to transfer his wealth to Atlantic Philanthropies would become public knowledge so Mr Feeney decided to tell his story to 'New York Times' journalists David Cay Johnston and Judith Miller instead.

Their story, which appeared on January 23, 1997, caused a sensation. So successful had Mr Feeney been at maintaining his and Atlantic Philanthropy's anonymity, that even most of those closely involved in philanthropic activities were largely unaware of its existence.

Before the 'New York Times' article the only vague clues to Atlantic's existence had been occasional large donations to universities from unnamed donors.

From the beginning a large proportion of Atlantic Philanthropies' giving has been to Irish causes. Over the years it has donated an estimated €1.25bn to a wide range of causes on both sides of the Border.

The University of Limerick, whose former president Dr Ed Walsh forged early links with Mr Feeney, has been the single biggest beneficiary, receiving an estimated €200m from Atlantic Philanthropies.

Most of the other Irish universities have also benefited from its generosity with Atlantic funding the construction of libraries, student accommodation blocks, sports centres and the UCD veterinary college. Remarkably not one of these buildings bears Mr Feeney's name.

Atlantic co-funded the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions, which brought together the seven universities and the Royal College of Surgeons. Its €178m donation topped up the €1.1bn spent by the State on the programme.

However, not all of Atlantic's donations have been universally lauded. In the 1990s it came in for strong criticism when it was revealed that it had funded Sinn Fein's office in Washington DC for three years.

After almost 20 years of relative peace in Northern Ireland it is difficult for anyone much under 40 to remember just how toxic Sinn Fein was in the mid-1990s.

However, at the same time Atlantic was funding various loyalist groups who were moving away from violence. The foundation also provided financial support to the Centre for Public Inquiry organisation founded by former journalist Frank Connolly.

This support was withdrawn after then Justice Minister Michael McDowell made serious allegations about Mr Connolly in the Dail.

Despite these occasional missteps there can be no gainsaying the fact that Mr Feeney and Atlantic Philanthropies have made an enormous contribution to Irish life over the past 28 years. Atlantic will be sadly missed when it is gone.

Irish Independent

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