Skip to main content

A fortunate life to give

Resource type: News

The Courier Mail (Australia) |

By Stefanie Balogh

Billionaire American Chuck Feeney, who has bankrolled much of Queensland’s scientific and medical research, began his philanthropy in secret, writes Stefanie Balogh in New York

FRUGAL to the point of eccentricity, Chuck Feeney travels the world economy class, wears a cheap plastic watch and cut-price reading glasses.

It’s the way the 76-year-old has always liked it. Waste riles him and he prefers to live his life under the radar.

The Irish-American philanthropist is the visionary responsible for transforming Queensland into the Smart State, but it is only one of the chapters of his fascinating life.

In The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away A Fortune, US financial journalist Conor O’Clery provides an engrossing insight into the man.

Feeney co-operated with the biography, telling O’Clery he loved making money, but not having it. His goal was always to be successful in business — the thrill of the chase — but throughout his life, the vast wealth he accumulated weighed heavily.

His working-class roots never left him. He oversaw the expansion of duty-free shopping worldwide and even played a pivotal but behind-the-scenes role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

Born during the Great Depression in April 1931 to a struggling Irish-American family in Elmora, New Jersey, he was the middle child between two sisters.

Money was tight but his parents were hard-working. As O’Clery writes, Feeney’s mother Madaline Feeney was also a “discreet Samaritan, doing favours without anyone knowing”.

The other characteristic he learned early in life was secrecy.

After graduating from high school at 17, he volunteered for the US Air Force and was posted to Japan in a signals intelligence unit, a division of the National Security Agency.

During the Korean War, Feeney’s job was to intercept radio communications used by Soviet pilots.

The air force would be his ticket to an education through a GI scholarship, and he gained a degree in hotel management at Cornell University.

To make ends meet, Feeney became “the sandwich man”, making and selling sandwiches to fellow students.

Graduating in 1956, he went to Grenoble University in southeast France and met Englishman Bob Edmonds, who was trying to establish a business selling duty-free alcohol to US sailors at Mediterranean ports.

Feeney met fellow Cornell graduate Robert Warren Miller in Barcelona. From there, Feeney and Miller formed a strategy to found and grow DFS (Duty Free Shoppers) around the world.

As the business flourished and Feeney and his family were living in Hong Kong five years later, he began rethinking his life. He started to feel uncomfortable in the world of “black-tie dinners and leisure yachts” and it proved to be at odds with the “values of thrift that had been imbued in him from childhood”.

It was the turning point that would launch Feeney on a new path of giving while living, a journey that would help remake Queensland.

Feeney began giving away some of his money in a piecemeal way but it wasn’t until 1982 in Bermuda, that he established the Atlantic Foundation.

Two years later, he would become the “billionaire who wasn’t”. Feeney and his French-born wife Danielle would sign over everything to the Atlantic Foundation, apart from $50 million and houses for his wife and five children Diane, Patrick, Caroleen, Leslie and Juliette.

For years, Feeney was to be the world’s biggest secret philanthropist. Forbes magazine wrongly listed him in 1988 as the 23rd richest American alive, worth $1.8 billion. He supposedly had more money than Donald Trump. It annoyed Feeney but he did not correct the record to keep the foundation secret.

It was not until December 1996 when he sold his share in DFS for $2 billion, funnelling the cash into his foundation, that his involvement was unmasked.

Earlier, a chance invitation took Feeney to Ireland. Over time, he not only started giving secretly to Irish universities but became involved in the Northern Ireland peace process.

A defining moment was the death of his nephew Jimmy Fitzpatrick from cancer in 1992. O’Clery writes that Feeney reflected: “No matter how much money you have, you can’t solve the health issues of those you love.”

The tragedy reinforced his determination to focus the Atlantic Foundation on medical and biomedical research in future years.

This is what he is best known for in Australia. In 1993 he started making regular trips Down Under where his close friend, former Australian tennis player Ken Fletcher had moved from London back home to Brisbane.

In March 1998, he and Fletcher went to see Brisbane lord mayor Jim Soorley to ask his help in setting up a meeting with university heads.

A dinner was organised at the Irish Club with two leading academics, Professor John Hay, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland, and Professor Laurie Powell, director of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. Hay had an ambitious plan to create an institute of molecular bioscience.

O’Clery says within weeks Feeney had arranged for the Atlantic Foundation to provide $10 million seed money. The Queensland and federal governments and the university each put in $15 million.

“Hay was able to create the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology when Atlantic put in a third of the $70 million cost and Queensland and the university another third each. By 2006, Feeney had directed a total of $125 million to the university,” O’Clery writes.

“Feeney’s arrival on the scene coincided with a plan by (former Queensland premier) Peter Beattie to upgrade the state, which up to then many Australians saw as a version of America’s Deep South.”

Feeney also provided initial funding for the $60 million Cancer Research Centre at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research.

O`Clery says that of the $4 billion
Atlantic Philanthropies has given in 25 years, more than $2.5 billion has gone to the US, more than $1.2 billion to Ireland and well over $250 million each to Vietnam and Australia.

Related Resources

Global Impact:



Queensland, Smart State, The Billionaire Who Wasn't