Shy billionaire gives $102 million to Queensland

Resource type: News

Brisbane Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Tony Moore. 

Who is Charles “Chuck” Feeney and why is Premier Anna Bligh so keen to be photographed with him?

The answer is a $102 million gift the Irish-American billionaire yesterday gave to three Queensland medical research centres to help scientists fight cancer and develop vaccines that will save children’s lives.

It represents the largest single donation ever made in Australia for scientific and medical study and gives Queensland’s scientists the opportunity to make major medical breakthroughs.

Until yesterday afternoon, Mr Feeney was virtually unknown in Queensland, staying well away from the media spotlight here.

Born in 1931 in New Jersey, his links go way back, however. He is a friend of Ken Fletcher, Queensland’s gifted, but relaxed tennis star of the 1950s and 60s, as well as author Hugh Lunn.

The retiring philanthropist referred to both men yesterday when his gifts were made public at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research at the Royal Brisbane Hospital.

It was a polite gesture that went quietly by in the shadow of his own enigma.

Mr Feeney earned his fortune after setting up the Duty Free Shopping Network, which initially sold duty-free liquor to US servicemen in Mediterranean seaports in the 1950s.

Duty Free Shopping (DFS) became the largest point of sale of cigarettes, alcohol and perfume on the back of the tourism boom which followed World War II.

He eventually sold his interests in 1997, a sale which boosted his personal wealth and for the first time brought this shy, mysterious philanthropist to the public arena.

By 1982 he had set up a philanthropic institution called the Atlantic Philanthropies and, according to Wikipedia estimates, he had given away $3.457 billion by 2005 – most of it done in total anonymity.

In a 2003 interview in the Irish Republican – and posted on his Atlantic Philanthropies website – Feeney “correctly foresaw a pent-up demand for foreign consumer goods, especially liquor.”

The business began in Hong Kong and Honolulu, but over the years, DFS opened dozens of duty-free shops across the world. Feeney learned Japanese and did deals with tour guides to divert travel groups through their outlets.

“We caught a wave,” he was once quotes as saying.

DFS became a global retail empire, a moneymaking machine that made its partners super rich. In 1988, Forbes magazine included Feeney in the top 20 of its 400 richest people list, estimating his worth at $1.3 billion.

His generosity went unknown until January 1997, when he called two American reporters from San Fransisco airport to out himself as the president of one of the world’s top private philanthropies, which had already secretly disbursed $610 million.

The same man yesterday gave Queensland its biggest ever single gift.

Of that, $50 million will go to the new Transatlantic Research Institute at the Princess Alexandra Hospital, $27.5 million will go to the new Queensland Institute of Medical Research at the Royal Brisbane and $25 million will go to Queensland’s Hub for Sustainable and Secure Infrastructure.

In the past decade he has given Queensland $170 million for medical research without any credit.

A grateful Premier Anna Bligh said: “This is biggest single donation in the nation’s history.”

He received five minutes of sustained applause in Brisbane yesterday and Ms Bligh was only too happy to pose with him.

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