Skip to main content

One Life to Give

Resource type: News

Irish America |

Conor O’Cleary interviews Chuck Feeney about his philosophy of giving. Irish America 12-01-2003 Chuck Feeney has just put into practice something he had been considering for many years. He has decided that all the vast wealth he accumulated in his lifetime should be given away while he is still alive. The graying, well preserved 72-year-old New Jersey native persuaded the board of Atlantic Philanthropies, which he created two decades ago, to convert its $4 billion in assets into cash, disperse it to good causes over the next 12 to 15 years, and shut up shop. It is better, he reckons, to concentrate its vast resources on the problems of today, and leave it to the next generation of philanthropists to address the issues of the future. He hopes his example of giving now to make a meaningful impact will encourage other philanthropists to increase their charitable giving while alive. He is convinced that it is the right thing to do. He intends that “Giving While Living” should be his legacy. For this reason, Chuck Feeney broke a life-long practice of avoiding the media and agreed for the first time to talk about his rise from modest beginnings to billionaire status as the founder of Duty Free Shops (DFS) and about his decision to give it all away. Feeney comes across as someone who really wants little more than to end his life as the ordinary guy who left Elizabeth, New Jersey to become a GI after the Second World War. He has accumulated more wealth than any other Irish American of his generation, but you won’t see him at the receptions or the black tie functions that mark the social life of corporate Irish America. “I’m just not the kind of guy who gets any kick out of attending these mutual admiration society dinners,” he told me. “I’m not an event person. There’s too much focus on limousines, or buying property in the Hamptons.” But he is interested in talking to the heart surgeons at a hospital he has funded in Vietnam, or sitting in a library he has helped build in Limerick and watching students reading books, or talking politics in a Third Avenue bar. He totally rejects the trappings of the wealthy lifestyle. No one has ever seen him in pinstripes. He was sporting an openneck checked shirt and off-the-peg blazer when I interviewed him for the Irish Times in his foundation’s midtown Manhattan office. He had $9 reading glasses and was wearing a $15 plastic Casio watch. “If I can get a watch for $15 with a five-year battery that keeps perfect time, what am I doing messing around with a Rolex?” he said, his blue eyes looking amused, when I asked him why he didn’t buy a more expensive watch. He doesn’t own a house or a car. He flies economy class, even on his frequent long intercontinental flights. When he needs a car he rents the smallest two-door model. In New York no one would point him out in the street. He uses taxis and the subway, or walks, a courteous, nondescript man carrying documents in a plastic bag. He declines most invitations to formal affairs. He doesn’t like being called “reclusive,” as he often is in newspapers. “I describe myself as different,” he said. Journalist Jim Dwyer once wrote in a Daily News column that when the world’s biggest giver did make a rare exception to attend Irish America’s Business 100 lunch at New York’s `21′ Club in 1997, he walked a dozen blocks without being recognized, and “looked a bit miserable” at speaking in public. Feeney, concluded Dwyer, was what Donald Trump would be if he lived his entire existence backward. One of Feeney’s daughters told Dwyer of a family gathering at the same venue some years before. “They asked `Who are you?’ He said, `Chuck Feeney.’ They said, `Oh, of course, Mr. Feeney,'” and brought them to the table for Chub Feeney, former president of the National League. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, who also attended the Irish America event, wrote, “I have never met a billionaire who is shy and retiring, who doesn’t own a house, a car, a Rolex, who likes to take the subway and fly economy, who goes to the supermarket and worries about the price of carrots, who gives away most of his money because as he puts it `You can only wear one pair of shoes at a time.'” Charles J. Feeney was brought up in a working-class neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the son of an insurance underwriter and a nurse. His father’s mother came from near Kinawley, Co. Fermanagh, a link with Ireland of which he was always conscious. Instead of waiting for military call-up he “jumped the line” at 17 and, like many other young men of the time, enlisted for postwar service in occupied Japan and Korea. On discharge, he got a 36-month GI scholarship — the starting point for many Irish American rags-to-riches success stories — and went to study hotel administration at Cornell, the Ivy League university in Ithaca, New York. At Cornell he first displayed his talents for making a buck. The monthly scholarship checks for $110 barely covered tuition, so he sold baskets of sandwiches made up by a classmate who is now a distinguished professor. “They used to say I didn’t need to look for a job after college because I was making too much money making sandwiches,” Feeney said. He loves to tell a journalist the story of entering a quiz for a course on money and banking at Cornell. “I got my paper back with a note from the professor stating: `You have a flair for writing but no knowledge of the subject matter. Try journalism.'” On graduating in 1956, Feeney found himself with four months’ scholarship money left and applied for a political science course at a couple of French universities. When he presented himself at the 14th-century University of Grenoble, a puzzled dean of admissions said: “This is the first time, Mr. Feeney, I have received a request for admission to the University of Strasbourg.” Feeney replied quickly: “If I wanted to go to Strasbourg I wouldn’t be here,” and was admitted. After Grenoble, Feeney ran a camp for children from the U.S. fleet in southern France for a while before meeting up with a fellow Cornell alumnus, Robert Miller, in Barcelona. “I said to him I thought there was a good opportunity to make a buck selling to the fleet,” he said. They found a niche retailing perfume, tape recorders and transistor radios. In 1960, the partners opened a duty-free shop in Honolulu and another in Hong Kong. The concept of duty-free shopping had been pioneered successfully by Brendan O’Reagan at Shannon airport. Feeney and Miller called their venture Duty Free Shoppers (DFS). However, they overextended and had to bring in two junior partners, a British accountant and an American lawyer, to put together a rescue package. The company took off when the Japanese lifted travel restrictions on its citizens in 1966. Feeney correctly foresaw a pent-up demand for foreign consumer goods, especially liquor. 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 said. 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. But Feeney did not belong on the list. In 1982, he had secretly and irrevocably transferred his entire 38.75 percent interest in DFS to a charitable foundation, keeping less than $5 million for himself. The decision to give his wealth away was not sudden, he said. “I did not want money to consume my life.” The decision to create a foundation came after Feeney made his first major bequest of $700,000 to Cornell University in 1981, and was besieged with requests. He turned to a legal friend, Harvey Philip Dale, a brilliant New York law professor, who advised him on setting up a mechanism to handle future donations. The foundation — in reality a number of separate foundations collectively known as The Atlantic Philanthropies — was registered in Bermuda to avoid disclosure requirements. To maintain secrecy, the organization did not bear his name — almost unheard of in the world of philanthropy. Feeney declined even to take personal tax deductions on his giving. “I just felt I didn’t see the need for blowing a horn,” he said when asked why he wanted to stay anonymous. “Part of the consideration was I was married and had five kids. We lived in France at the time. I wanted to make sure that the kids didn’t have security issues.” Anonymity also allowed him to walk down the street in any city and not be recognized. The downside was that “when anybody said anything inaccurate you couldn’t go back and correct them.” He set up separate foundations for his children to meet their needs. “All my kids have grown up quite normally,” he says. “Today they have all they need in life.” After setting up Atlantic Philanthropies, Feeney devoted his energies to running the global businesses of its holding company, General Atlantic Group Ltd., which included hotels, spas, fitness clubs, shops and property. A set of rules was established to maintain secrecy about Atlantic Philanthropies grants. Unsolicited approaches for donations were not accepted. Grants were paid by cashier’s check to hide the source. Often recipients had no idea where the money came from. Feeney, who loves a practical joke, made fun of his own obsession with confidentiality. Once, after Dale lectured trustees in Bermuda about the need for anonymity, he returned to the room to find Feeney and the rest wearing outsize spectacles with big noses and moustaches. The shroud of secrecy extended to everything and everybody concerned with his charitable foundations. To ensure anonymity on occasions when he was an honored guest at an event, Feeney would insist on bringing his own photographer — who would snap away with no film in the camera. Many good causes that benefited from his multi-million-dollar grants never knew the name of the anonymous donor. Feeney’s anonymity as a philanthropist came to an end accidentally when in the mid-1990s he decided it was time to get out of DFS. He wanted a better cash flow and he believed — correctly as it turned out — that the duty-free business was going into decline. (Feeney uses the analogy of “church and state” to separate giving and business in Atlantic Philanthropies, and he wanted more liquid assets for the “church” side of things.) The company that makes Moet & Chandon Champagne bought DFS, over his partner Robert Miller’s vehement objections. The founding partnership ended in acrimony. The 1997 sale left Feeney’s charity worth $3.5 billion. But the legal wrangling meant that Atlantic Philanthropies would be exposed. Feeney decided that the truth should be managed by breaking the story themselves to The New York Times. On January 22, 1997 Feeney lifted a payphone in San Francisco airport and broke the story to two reporters, David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning tax writer, and Judith Miller. As jets whined in the background he disclosed to them that he was the anonymous giver who had set the world of philanthropy buzzing for years. The story astonished friends of Harvey Dale at NYU, who never knew until they read the paper next day that Feeney had secretly been the president of one of the world’s top private philanthropies, which had already secretly disbursed $610 million. Robert Millar too was stunned to learn his partner had given his wealth away. He never knew. Miller had gone in the opposite direction and adopted an extravagant lifestyle. He once held a sumptuous three-day party in Hong Kong with hot-air balloons and an imported disc jockey from Paris. He and his glamorous Ecuadorian wife, Chantal, bought up properties all over the world, including a grouse moor in Yorkshire, and his daughter married Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece. Today Feeney’s foundation is worth about $3.6 billion. Under its new focus, Atlantic Philanthropies is ending its endowments to universities and focusing on health, aging, disadvantaged children and youth, and reconciliation and human rights, primarily in the U.S., the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Great Britain, South Africa, Vietnam, and Bermuda. The world of philanthropy was jolted when Atlantic Philanthropies announced last year that it would spend down its endowment and go out of business. Feeney’s promotion of bold problem solving rather than self-perpetuation was a challenge to the tight-fisted rich, and to foundations that dole out very little every year. “Wealth brings responsibilities,” said Feeney in his clipped New Jersey accent. “People have to determine themselves whether they feel an obligation to use some of their wealth to improve life for their fellow human beings rather than create problems for future generations.” He said he has a reluctance to say to people, “Gees, you’ve got a lot of money, you should do something about that!” One senses however that he feels very strongly about the fact that the richest one percent in America give only two percent of their wealth to charity, and many of the new rich in Ireland have proved remarkably tight-fisted when it comes to philanthropy. “Money is more worth-while to the people in need when things are tough rather than when things are good,” said Feeney. “If I have ten dollars in my pocket and I do something with it today, it’s already producing ten dollars’ worth of good, as opposed to writing a bill at five percent per year.” People with vast wealth should also start giving early in life, he declared. “Everyone knows when they’re born but nobody knows when they die. If you want to give it away, think about giving it away while you are alive because you’ll get a lot more satisfaction than if you wait until you’re dead.” Besides, he said, “It’s a lot more fun. Giving gave me a lot of pleasure.” A close observer of the wealthy, Steve Forbes, who compiles the 400 rich list in Forbes magazine, agrees with Feeney. Some foundations lose their moorings, he told me, and their bureaucracies become more interested in perpetuating themselves than putting wealth to productive use. The one thing Forbes said he learned from compiling the rich list was that wealth was ephemeral; unlike bars of gold, it could be lost as quickly as gained. Better by far to use it productively while living, he said. Much of the money Feeney has given away has gone to Ireland, both North and South. His interest in Ireland sprang from his background in the Irish neighborhoods of New Jersey, and was stimulated by his visits there in the 1970s to order whiskey for DFS. While in London one day in November 1987, he saw, horrified, the aftermath of the Enniskillen IRA bombing which killed 11 people. “This is ridiculous,” he thought. He began to wonder if he could help. He got some literature from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and found a reference to the Irish American Partnership, an organization set up in Dublin by Fine Gael TD Paddy Harte to tap into the goodwill and wealth of Irish-Americans. Not long after the Enniskillen bombing he arranged a meeting with two of the organization’s board members, Liam Connellan and Sean Condon, in Ashford Castle, County Mayo. They thought Feeney had interesting ideas on Ireland lifting itself up, but it was all a bit vague, recalled John Healy, then running the partnership. When Healy later met Feeney in Dublin he told him if he wanted to help, the Irish American Partnership could do with money to establish an office in New York. He knew nothing at the time about Feeney’s foundation. “I know a place that might entertain a proposal for $250,000,” Feeney said casually. Healy, who is now CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies, sent off the proposal and the money duly arrived. That same day Healy took Feeney to lunch in the University Club in Dublin. There Healy introduced his guest to Ed Walsh, president of the National Institute of Higher Education in Limerick, sitting at an adjoining table. It was to be a serendipitous and historic encounter. To Walsh, he was just another American but “very concerned about helping.” Only when Feeney arrived in Limerick the following week, and then insisted on flying Walsh to Cornell in Ithaca, New York, and introducing him to Frank Rhodes, the doyen of U.S. university leaders, did Walsh realize that the mysterious Irish American was, as he put it, “no ordinary Joe Soap.” Feeney for his part found Ed Walsh just the sort of person he was looking for. “I recognized that here was a school on the uptake and a charismatic leader,” he said. “The two things came together in him.” The association with American universities, and the grants that began to flow from Atlantic Philanthropies, took Irish universities onto new terrain, said Walsh. “What was so astonishing was his wish to be ordinary,” he recalled about the benefactor of what is now Limerick University. “He’d walk around the campus in his raincoat and pop his head around the corner of a door. He has a very simple way of life. He cherishes fundamental values. He puts us all to shame. If Chuck Feeney was not a very successful businessman he would be a very successful Benedictine monk.” Atlantic Philanthropies would eventually donate several hundred million dollars to finance university research, libraries and dormitories on both sides of the Border in Ireland, helping to transform and vitalize Irish third-level education within a decade. Through it all, in keeping with his desire for anonymity and his own sense of modesty, Feeney refused honorary degrees and insisted that his name would not appear on any building, unlike donors who buy “naming rights” to perpetuate their family name. “I guess it’s a simplistic statement but the good that’s done lives on,” he says when I ask why. “I love to go to a library and see kids sitting there,” he says. “I sit there and pick up something to read. It’s nice to see the lights burning late and students studying.” As he began investing the foundation’s resources in Irish universities, Feeney also began to get involved in promoting reconciliation in Ireland. It struck him that such acts as the Enniskillen bombing were extremely unworthy of Irish people. “I decided to look around to see who was doing anything to end it,” he says. He contacted Niall O’Dowd, publisher of Irish America, and the two began meeting regularly. “When the time came to start putting something together I was naturally the guy he contacted because I was in Ireland a lot at that time,” said Feeney, referring to the group of Irish Americans put together by O’Dowd to encourage a ceasefire in return for political support from America. Feeney recalled how O’Dowd once took him to meet Gerry Adams in Belfast, where they went to the wrong “safe house” and a large man opened the door and asked suspiciously, “Are you peelers?” The pair beat a hasty retreat and were rescued by the Sinn Féin leader in his armor-plated taxi. Feeney said he talked to Adams and liked him. “He was very straightforward. It seemed to me this was a guy who in the right conditions would be interested in stopping the craziness that existed out there.” Feeney, who has Irish and American citizenship, visited the North 11 times as a key member of the group that helped persuade the Clinton White House to reach out and encourage Republicans to end violence and take their chances at the negotiating table. “Clearly we weren’t players in the action,” said Feeney, who always managed to avoid being photographed with the group, except once when an Irish Times photographer climbed onto a railing outside Sinn Féin headquarters in Belfast and got a snapshot of the elusive philanthropist before he could slip away from the group into the background. “We were not dumb enough to think that we were the motivating force,” he said, “but clearly there was a time, a mood, to do something. And we were up there.” One of the contributions Feeney made to the peace process, for which he admits he took “a lot of stick” in the media, was to fund the Sinn Féin office in Washington out of his own pocket to the tune of $720,000, or $20,000 a month, over three years. He dismissed reports that the funding ended because he became disillusioned with Sinn Féin. They were categorically not true, he said. The inaccuracies irritated him, though he admitted that this was part of the price of not talking to the press. “But the background is very simple. The goal was to establish a Washington office to put Sinn Féin on a respectable platform so they could say this is what Sinn Féin does. We’re not the IRA, that’s-another organization. Friends of Sinn Féin gave an undertaking that it would only be used for the purpose of running an office, and that’s the way it was done.” He also privately funded loyalists looking for a way out of the violence. He maintains his deep interest in the Northern Ireland political process and doesn’t share the sense of betrayal felt by some Irish-Americans in the wake of 9/11 over anti-war attitudes in Ireland. “These people see the American side of things,” said Feeney. “I see the Irish side.” Rather he is deeply angry about the Bush administration’s alienation of the international community. Someone told him about being invited by President Bush to watch the horseracing movie Seabiscuit in the 50-seat White House cinema, and he said he couldn’t resist remarking: “Sounds like there’s room for a bunch of horses’ asses in there.” Now divorced from his French wife after 31 years and married to his second wife, Helga, Feeney spends a lot of his time on the move. He writes his travel schedule in ballpoint in a spiral exercise book, blocking off weeks for different destinations. In the first half of next year he will be in San Francisco, New York, Bermuda, London, Vietnam, Australia and Germany. In all these places he has circles of friends and grateful admirers. He is always in the U.S. for Thanksgiving, which he spends with his younger sister in Spring Lake, on the New Jersey “Irish Riviera.” “The Thanksgiving holiday is the one I like the most, it’s not about consumption,” he said. But he doesn’t stay long. “I’d like to keep moving around, as long as I’m able.” I asked him where he regarded as home. “Home is where the heart is,” he said. “And where my books are. Everywhere I go I have my books: New York, San Francisco, London, Brisbane, Limerick.” He doesn’t like the idea of living in a mansion like other successful entrepreneurs. “I wouldn’t be comfortable in an 8,000-square-foot home,” he said. “You couldn’t find anybody in it.” He reads non-fiction voraciously. He is always passing articles of interest to friends. “If you see a magazine with pages torn out,” he told me, “that means I’ve been reading it.” Through it all Feeney never cut himself off from his hometown. In 1998, he organized a 50th reunion in Castletroy Hotel, Limerick, for the class of 1948 of St. Mary’s High School of Elizabeth, New Jersey. He made sure everyone could afford to go, reported the local paper. He did it again this year but with fewer people, as age has taken its toll. By the time the 70th reunion takes place in 2018, Feeney intends to have gotten rid of the fortune that he made on duty-free shops, and to be back more or less where he started, which is how he wants it to be. However, the world he leaves behind will be a much better place. Article copyright Irish America Inc. Copyright Irish Voice, Inc. Dec/Jan 2004

Related Resources


Giving While Living