Skip to main content

An elusive billionaire gives away his good fortune

Resource type: News

Los Angeles Times |

Chuck Feeney, who nudges others to give while living, plans to donate $8 billion by 2016. Just don’t put his name on anything.

By Margot Roosevelt

One by one, speakers rose to toast the elderly gent with baggy pants and a shy, gaptoothed smile.

“Of course, he didn’t wear a tie tonight,” teased one. Another called attention to the honoree’s cheap watch and the plastic bag that serves as his briefcase.

The joshing at a Manhattan gathering would have been nothing out of the ordinary except that the man pulling a worn blue blazer over his head in mock modesty was none other than the onetime billionaire, Chuck Feeney.

Never heard of him? No surprise there.

Over the years, the frugal 76-year-old has made a fetish out of anonymity. He declined to name his foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, after himself, registering the $8-billion behemoth in Bermuda to avoid U.S. disclosure laws. He lavishes hundreds of millions of dollars on universities and hospitals but won’t allow even a small plaque identifying him as a donor.

“We just didn’t want to be blowing our horn,” he explains in a rare interview at his daughter’s Upper East Side apartment.

The party was to celebrate a biography of the elusive tycoon by Irish journalist Conor O’Clery, titled “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune,” published last fall.

Feeney said he cooperated with the book and submitted to an interview because he is driven by a new public mission: nudging hedge fund heavies and silicon scions into “giving while living.”

It is the latest trend in philanthropy and one that he, more than anyone, jump-started several years before billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren E. Buffett followed suit.

Feeney, a founder of the conglomerate Duty Free Shoppers, said he wants to “set an example” to address “that layer up there of people,” the ones, as he puts it, who have “a jillion dollars. . . . I mean, honestly, if you ask them, ‘Tell me what you’re doing with your money this week?’ they couldn’t spend a fraction of what they’re accruing.”

Most foundations, set up after the donor’s death, dribble out barely more than 5% of their assets each year, the legal minimum.

But Feeney, raised in a blue-collar Irish Catholic family in New Jersey, quietly transferred the bulk of his fortune to his foundation when he was 53. Then, eight years ago, he instructed his board to pay out every last dollar by 2016.

So far: $4 billion down, $4 billion to go. Atlantic Philanthropies is spreading its wealth at the rate of more than $400 million a year, more than any U.S.-based family foundation apart from Bill & Melinda Gates and Ford.

As Feeney sees it, there is too much misery in the world to justify delay. “I’m not going to die until I can spend it,” he vows with a merry chuckle.

Feeney’s biggest beneficiary has been Cornell University, which he attended on the GI Bill, earning spending money by selling sandwiches to fraternities. Over four decades, he has donated an astonishing $588 million to the Ithaca, N.Y., campus, almost all of it anonymously.

Many of Feeney’s grants are still directed to traditional bricks and mortar — $60 million for a Stanford biomedical center and $125 million for a UC San Francisco cardiovascular complex.

But others are iconoclastic: Fighting homophobia among South African Muslims. Lobbying against the death penalty in New Jersey. Buying medical supplies for Cuban-trained doctors. Funding a Washington office for Sinn Fein during the Irish peace negotiations.

Feeney built his global enterprise through cutthroat competition and uncanny business intuition. He speaks fluent French and Japanese. And he still hop-scotches from Dublin to Da Nang seeding new projects.

But his demeanor is affable and unprepossessing and his conversational style is hesitant. He is allergic to introspection. Direct questions send him into vague digressions leavened with humorous asides.

In the tiny world of stratospheric wealth, Feeney is a man of yin and yang: extravagant charity coupled with personal penny-pinching. “It’s the intelligent thing to be frugal,” says the erstwhile billionaire, who jokingly refers to himself as “the shabby philanthropist.”

He once owned six luxurious homes from the French Riviera to Mayfair to Park Avenue. These days, he owns none, instead hunkering down in a cramped one-bedroom rental in San Francisco with his second wife, Helga, his former secretary.

He raked in billions selling duty-free cognac, perfume and designer labels. But you won’t catch Feeney in a Hermes tie or Gucci loafers. He once met the prime minister of Ireland with his drugstore glasses held together by a paper clip.

Feeney doesn’t own a car and prefers buses to taxis. Until he turned 75, he flew coach. Now, making excuses for wobbly knees, he upgrades with frequent flier miles.

Fine dining? “There are restaurants you can go in and pay $100 a person for a meal,” he muses. “I get as much satisfaction out of paying $25. I happen to enjoy grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches.”

Niall O’Dowd, a friend of Feeney and editor of Irish-America magazine, reflects: “The way he copes with his wealth is to never remove himself from his working-class persona. He keeps grounded by acting like it hasn’t happened to him — like basically he is still the same guy.”

At the book party, most of the guests were bused in from the Garden State: former classmates from St. Mary’s of the Assumption High School and an extended clan of Feeney-Fitzpatricks, including two of his five children.

Feeney joked about his “rent-a-crowd” but, amid the toasts and roasts, seemed moved: “Who was it who said, ‘My cup runneth over?’ ”

He planted a kiss on the head of his 21-year old great-nephew, Dennis Fitzpatrick, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. He autographed copies of the book while seated at a small table with Dennis by his side.

“He’d send my parents $50,000 for our college educations,” nephew Daniel Fitzpatrick, 50, recalled. “But if you went out to have a beer with him, he’d check the bar bill. . . . If I left the light on in a bedroom, he’d say, ‘By the way, you left a light on.’ And I knew I’d better go up and turn it off.”

O’Clery, former international business editor of the Irish Times, spent two years traveling with Feeney and investigating a financial empire that had been sheathed for decades in obsessive secrecy. He unfolds a story of ferocious entrepreneurship that operated, he concluded, “on the edge of legality but was never corrupt.”

Shortly after graduating from college, Feeney, who had served in the U.S. Air Force in Japan during the Korean War, moved to Europe. With a partner he knew from Cornell, Robert Miller, he began peddling duty-free liquor to sailors.

The two went on to sell cars to American soldiers based in Europe and Asia. Eventually, profiting from a postwar boom in tourism, they built Duty Free Shoppers into the biggest retailer of liquor and cigarettes in the world and a global purveyor of luxury goods.

Their ingenious schemes stretched the limits of the duty-free concept.

As O’Clery explains, Duty Free Shoppers allowed a tourist in Mexico, for instance, to peruse a catalog and choose a cashmere sweater to be shipped from Amsterdam to his home in the U.S. Leaving Mexico, he could declare the faraway sweater as “unaccompanied baggage” and avoid paying duty. Feeney and Miller operated with Swiss bank accounts and offshore headquarters in Lichtenstein, Monaco and the Netherlands Antilles. They registered assets in the names of Danielle, Feeney’s French wife, and Miller’s Ecuadorean wife, Chantal, as a precaution against the long arm of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

Today, Feeney makes no apologies. “Most large companies structure their affairs so that they minimize their tax payments,” he says, rocking back on an armchair in his daughter’s apartment. “As long as you do it within the law, it’s OK.”

For Duty Free Shoppers, publicity was to be avoided at all cost, to ward off not just tax collectors but also competitors. “If you had a machine to make money, you wouldn’t blow your horn and say copy me, copy me,” says Feeney, whose annual share of dividends from the business reached $155 million in 1988, making him richer at the time than Rupert Murdoch, David Rockefeller or Donald Trump.

Why did he decide to give it away, leaving himself with a net worth then that dipped below $1 million? “I’m an easygoing guy,” he shrugs. “I like to eat my grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches quietly. I don’t like people to say, ‘Look over there; he’s eating a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich.’ ”

In 1990, Feeney had separated from Danielle. And, in the divorce, she retained their mansions and luxury apartments, along with $100 million.

“The wealth got to him,” recalls his nephew, Fitzpatrick. “He got disgusted by it, in my opinion. He said, ‘This expensive heavy-duty lifestyle doesn’t fit me.’ ”

Feeney gave his children, friends and colleagues copies of Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 essay “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which the robber baron-turned-philanthropist admonishes rich men to use their fortunes to help others and “to set an example of modest unostentatious living, shunning display.”

In the realm of modesty, Feeney tended to extremes.

For years, Atlantic Philanthropies staff couldn’t tell their families where they worked.

Beneficiaries, few of whom knew the origin of their grants, signed agreements acknowledging that the funding would halt if its source were revealed.

It was only in 1997 that the existence of Atlantic Philanthropies became public during the sale of Duty Free Shoppers to French luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault.

Court papers revealed that Feeney’s share of the company had been transferred to a foundation. The news that a huge donor had surfaced — bigger than renowned charitable institutions founded by the Pew, Lilly, MacArthur, Rockefeller and Mellon families — rocked the philanthropic world, although many had long suspected something was afoot.

Today, though Atlantic Philanthropies lists its grants on its website, it still won’t issue news releases touting accomplishments. Black tie thank-you dinners, along with plaques, remain verboten.

Feeney’s practical reason for not plastering his moniker on buildings is to attract matching donors who would want naming rights — as was the case at Stanford with high-tech tycoon Jim Clark and at a UC San Francisco cancer facility with venture capitalist Arthur Rock.

Does Feeney have no ego, then? “It doesn’t matter who put the building up,” he says. “The important thing is that it happens.”

In Vietnam, he recounts with a chuckle, “the people at the Da Nang General Hospital felt so bad that we wouldn’t put our name on the hospital that they painted it green” — shamrock green. He pauses, adding, “Which used up a lot of paint.”

Although his parents were American-born, Feeney’s attachment to the land of his ancestors runs deep. The Republic of Ireland in the 1980s was plagued by high unemployment, a brain drain and the festering guerrilla war to the north. Anonymously, Feeney began pouring money into renovating Ireland’s seven universities, along with two in Northern Ireland.

He offered $125 million for postgraduate research if the Irish government would match the amount, nearly 20 times what the Republic was spending a year. Soon, Ireland’s best and brightest flocked to the new research institutes. In all, Atlantic Philanthropies has spent more than $1 billion in Ireland.

In 1993, O’Dowd, who had worked with Feeney to promote U.S. naturalization for Irish immigrants, asked him to join in what would become the Connolly House Group, named after the Belfast headquarters of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army.

The small, secret group of Irish Americans offered the newly elected Clinton administration a back-channel to negotiate a cease fire between Britain and the Irish Republican Army.

“At the time, it was risky business to be seen ‘talking to terrorists’–that was the label,” said former Rep. Bruce Morrison, one of the group.

Feeney was intensely involved in the negotiations that led Clinton to grant a visa to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and he funded a Washington office for Sinn Fein to the tune of $750,000.

“It was New Jersey working class meets Belfast working class,” O’Dowd recalled of a secret meeting between Feeney and Adams in a Dublin safe house. “These two guys understood each other right away.”

The peace processwas ultimately successful, and Feeney has since funneled millions into reconciliation programs in Northern Ireland.

“The only way you’re going to solve things with your friends or enemies is to sit down and talk to them,” he says today. “It didn’t seem right to me that Irish people were killing Irish people.”

On the coffee table in his daughter’s living room, Feeney opens Bill Clinton’s recent bestseller “Giving.”

He turns to the chapter “How Much Should You Give and Why?” and reads from statistics derived from U.S. income tax data showing that if the top 14,400 taxpayers gave a third of their income, the total would be about $61 billion.

Feeney shakes his head. “People who wouldn’t miss it,” he muses. “Sixty-one billion in one year!”

And why isn’t it happening? “People traditionally collect money. I guess there is an attraction to be known as a wealthy person,” he says. “It’s not my role in life to tell them what they should be doing. . . . I’m just convinced if people gave money to things they’ve identified as being in the public interest, they’d get great satisfaction out of it.”

Feeney mentions one of his favorite charities, Operation Smile, which sponsors surgeons to operate on children with cleft palates in developing countries.

He tells of watching a little girl in a waiting room sitting with her hands covering her mouth.

“I kept an eye on her,” he recalls. “After she had the operation and she was smiling [like], ‘It’s not the ugly me you knew before. It’s the new me.’ ”

On another occasion, he says, a man in a restaurant called him over and said, “Do you realize you educated me in this business? I had one of your scholarships . . . and here I am now, the general manager of this chain. ”

O’Clery, who hung out with Feeney for several years at P.J. Clarke’s, the Manhattan pub, before broaching the topic of a book, attributes Feeney’s generosity to growing up with charitable parents and in a neighborhood where people helped one another.

He calls his subject an “enigma. . . . He likes to make money, but he doesn’t like to have it. He travels all over the world, but in a way, he’s never left Elizabeth, N.J.”

Feeney suggests with a cryptic smile, “There’s a thin line between sanity and the other side. Some people might even say the idea of giving money away is crazy.”

For those folks, Feeney has a Gaelic proverb: “There are no pockets in a shroud.”

Related Resources

Global Impact:

United States


The Billionaire Who Wasn't