Six billion dollar man
Resource type: News
Australian Broadcasting Corporation |
Quietly spoken American billionaire Chuck Feeney has flown under the public radar for most of his long and very successful life. Over decades he built an international empire of duty free stores, but in the eighties, as the billions mounted, he began to question the point of having so much money. Feeney has given away around six billion dollars to various causes and is by far Australia’s biggest philanthropist.
KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: Quietly spoken American billionaire Chuck Feeney has flown under the public radar for most of his long and very successful life. Over decades he built an international empire of duty free stores. But in the ’80s, as the billions mounted he began to question the point of having so much money. He established a charitable foundation with the firm ambition to give it all away before he dies, except for a relatively small percentage for his family.
Australia has become a major beneficiary thanks to Feeney’s long friendship with Queensland tennis great, the late Ken Fletcher. On Monday, Chuck Feeney announced his latest gift to Australia: $102 million to three Queensland medical research centres to help fight cancer and develop vaccines.
All up his gifts to universities and research centres in Queensland now total more than $300 million. So an Irish-American is by far Australia’s biggest philanthropist. I recorded this very rare interview with Chuck Feeney, now 78 years old, in Brisbane this morning.
Chuck Feeney, many wealthy people give money to charity, but very few have dedicated themselves to philanthropy the way that you have. What set you on the road?
CHUCK FEENEY, US PHILANTHROPIST: Oh, that’s a complex question, but the answer is simply that at some point in my life I realised that having money is only as good as what you can do with it. And so I said, “Let me think about it and try to figure out what I can do with the good fortune I have had to accumulate money,” because money is the currency that people work in.
KERRY O’BRIEN: So what has been your guiding philosophy in the way you have gone about giving your money away?
CHUCK FEENEY: One, we put time into identifying the kind of people we want to support, and we work with them so they can produce a game plan and then we monitor their game plan and make sure that they are producing what they promised, and I think that’s a business-like approach to philanthropy.
KERRY O’BRIEN: But it does seem that the core of your interests revolves around education and around medical science. Now why?
CHUCK FEENEY: Well, the education ties into medical science because you need smart people to find solutions. We talked about a solution for cancer, which I think is a target goal and I think it will be achieved – and the sooner the better as we are all affected by it. Or will be affected.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Is it true that you were deeply affected by the death of your nephew Jimmy, from cancer, and that that was an influence on …
CHUCK FEENEY: That’s correct, and, again, the cancer is driven by the fact that it happens, in Jimmy’s case when he was 38 years old, he had another half a life ahead of him. He never got a chance to achieve it because the cancer cut him down.
KERRY O’BRIEN: You have been famously low-key just about all your life. Certainly there’s no evidence of mindless ego-tripping or conspicuous consumption. What does that say about you, I wonder?
CHUCK FEENEY: Maybe it’s that I’m a cheap arse. Yeah, well …
KERRY O’BRIEN: Something to do with the way you were raised?
CHUCK FEENEY: No I think I grew up that way. I came from a working class family. My mother was a nurse and cared a lot for people. My father was very active in the community. It was, you know, an early example of giving something back, so I always had that in my mind.
KERRY O’BRIEN: What has been the most fun, making the money or giving it away?
CHUCK FEENEY: Clearly the second, because, you know, you are bumping heads when you’re making money, and sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s not fun.
KERRY O’BRIEN: I find it quite striking that the biggest philanthropist in Australia by far is an American and you would say I know an Irish-American. What does that say about Australia and its culture of philanthropy?
CHUCK FEENEY: Well, to be honest, my make up tells me if a person makes money – I know we worked hard to make ours – that they are entitled to decide what they do with it. So I am not about to tell someone what they should do. I’m telling them the satisfaction that they derive from giving money, in my case, clearly outweighs the side of making money.
KERRY O’BRIEN: I have read background that suggests that your children are quite comfortable with the approach you have taken in embarking on this road of essentially giving the fortune away substantially. That’s the case?
CHUCK FEENEY: That is the case. Again they were brought up without the trappings of money. I never felt that loading them with money was in their interests. And as I say, they were all out there leading happy lives and getting satisfaction, and about half of them are involved in philanthropic efforts – not with us, but of their own.
KERRY O’BRIEN: You must have a lot of good memories by now of moments where, maybe you have been touched by some of the things that have been achieved.
CHUCK FEENEY: Yeah, I’m particularly excited by a program that we supported, just called “Operation Smile” which goes to countries – underdeveloped countries and helps cure things that are fairly simply to cure like some types of facial problems: cleft lip, cleft palate, harelip, which frankly changed those people’s lives. And I can recall sitting there looking at a father and daughter, who were waiting to be called in for surgery, and the girl was … had her head down, she was trying to hide what she felt was an ugly deformation. And it so happened that a couple of days later I saw her again and she had had the surgery – and she … her life was changed. You realise that – how important that is to her for the rest of her life. And we still support that program.
KERRY O’BRIEN: So when did you discover the capacity to make money?
CHUCK FEENEY: Well, we were in good luck there. We got into a growth business. We didn’t realise it was a growth business at that time, but we were in the early stages of the duty free business, and it paid off. We milked it as long as we could.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Do you know how many you have given away in your lifetime?
CHUCK FEENEY: Ah, people track that … I guess something between $5 and $6 billion.
KERRY O’BRIEN: $5, $6 billion?
CHUCK FEENEY: Well.
KERRY O’BRIEN: How much more to give?
CHUCK FEENEY: Well, we have approximately $2 billion in unallocated assets and a billion in grants in progress.
KERRY O’BRIEN: And it’s your idea that that will all be given away by 2017, 2020?
CHUCK FEENEY: Yeah, I think so. It’s not going to be easy because there’s a close-down period but as I said in my book there, I want to be around, if possible, to see it all spent.
KERRY O’BRIEN: You are in the twilight of your life now. If you’ll pardon the pun, has it been a rich life for you, a life well travelled, a life fulfilled?
CHUCK FEENEY: I would say so. We had a couple of reunions of my high school class, and at one there was a discussion that was engineered by one of the few people who got an upmarket PhD and the question to answer was: “Were we born at the right time?” And graduating from high school in 1948, and I went to the army afterwards, but that was a good time when, you know, the war was over, you know, and the world was starting to breathe again and business was picking up, and so the timing on that was good.
KERRY O’BRIEN: And you once quoted an oriental proverb that says, “Fortune doesn’t change a man, it only unmasks him.”
CHUCK FEENEY: I think that’s true. It’s true from what I have observed anyway.
KERRY O’BRIEN: So who are you with the mask off?
CHUCK FEENEY: Just a guy like everybody else. Maybe … if that meant anything, a wealthy person, but it didn’t really many much to me because, I guess, I had reached a stage where surplus wealth had to have a better answer than buying jets.
KERRY O’BRIEN: So what do you say to people who don’t have wealth, but who seriously desire it?
CHUCK FEENEY: Yeah well, I mean, different strokes for different folks. You know, the disadvantage of having wealth is the risk of losing it. Of course, if you’ve geared yourself up to benefit from the trappings of wealth, and you haven’t got them anymore, you got a problem. But different … I just keep hoping that people recognise that what they can do is more important than what they can do for themselves.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Chuck Feeney, thanks very much for talking with us.
CHUCK FEENEY: Thank you very much.