Charles Francis “Chuck” Feeney is an Irish-American businessman, philanthropist and the founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies, one of the largest private foundations in the world.
Feeney was born in New Jersey during the Great Depression and came from a modest, blue-collar background. He served as a radio operator in the United States Air Force during the Korean War and won a G.I. scholarship to Cornell University, making him the first in his family to go to college.
In 1960, he co-founded of the Duty-Free Shoppers Group (DFS) which is where he made his fortune. DFS sold luxury duty-free goods to international travellers at airports all over the world.
After his graduation in 1956, Feeney travelled to France for further education where he became involved in the business of following the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic fleet, selling duty-free liquor to sailors.
After a successful start, he brought fellow Cornell alum, Bob Miller, into the business. Together they began selling cars, perfume and jewellery to servicemen and tourists. By 1964, DFS employed 200 personnel in 27 countries.
It wasn’t until shortly after the Japanese economic boom though, that the DFS Group really started to gather pace. In 1964, Japan lifted its foreign travel embargo that had been imposed following the Second World War. For the first time in decades, Japanese tourists were free to trot around the globe spending their new found wealth.
Hawaii and Hong Kong were top destinations and Feeney ensured his stores were stocked with cognac, cigarettes and leather bags that gift-frenzied Japanese tourists snapped up for friends and family.
By 1967, Feeney received annual dividend payments worth $12,000 which he funnelled into an aggressive growth strategy that took full advantage of Japan’s economic explosion. By 1977, $12 thousand had become $12 million and over the next decade Feeney added a further $334 million that all found its way into hotels, retail shops, clothing companies and tech start-ups.
In 1996, Feeney’s interest in DFS were acquired by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), the French luxury goods group, for $1.63 billion. Feeney ensured that he set aside $26 million to gift to 2,400 long-term staff.
The Atlantic Philanthropies
In 1988, The Forbes 400 issue included a four-page feature that exposed the success of DFS and the vast wealth of its owners. The piece identified Feeney as the 31st-wealthiest person in America with an estimated worth of $1.3 billion. They made two errors though: the fortune was actually worth substantially more and it no longer belonged to Feeney.
Four years prior, Feeney had transferred his entire 38.75% ownership stake in DFS into The Atlantic Philanthropies, a private foundation he created in 1982 with the instruction to dispense his entire fortune to charitable endeavours before his death. Only a close inner circle knew this: that Feeney himself was worth, at most, a few million dollars.
Feeney once said: “I had one idea that never changed in my mind, that you should use your wealth to help people.” It was this mentality that inspired him to set-up The Atlantic Philanthropies, ironically during a decade of conspicuous consumption and the Wall Street boom. A decade which delivered Gordon Gecko’s notorious ‘greed is good’ speech.
“I became convinced that there was greater satisfaction from giving my money away and seeing something come out of the ground, like a hospital or a university,” he told the Financial Times. “It just seemed logical to put the money to good use rather than putting it into a bank account and letting it accumulate and accumulate.”
As a businessman, Feeney was ruthless in his pursuit of profit. He continued to aggressively expand DFS in order to feed The Atlantic Philanthropies. Feeney travelled the globe conquering new markets, outmanoeuvring rivals and expanding margins. He loved making money but had no need for it once it was made. “I don’t dislike money, but there’s only so much money you can use.”
Described by Forbes as the James Bond of philanthropy, Feeney spent decades flying around the world putting the pieces in place for his clandestine master plan – to give away his entire $7.5 billion fortune and go broke before he died.
Feeney would force charities to work for his cash by requesting business plans with key milestones. He selected programmes that promised exponential returns and pumped investment into university research and tech start-ups.
One of the more recent Atlantic grants was a $350 million pledge to help Cornell win the bid to build a $2 billion technology institute on Roosevelt Island. It is believed that this project will attract the best engineers, tech firms and new start-ups who will cultivate skilled workforces to generate wealth and job creation for the benefit of wider society.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “The visionary gift will pay dividends not just for Cornell but for New York City.” The investment included a leverage of $100 million plus land from the New York City taxpayer’s purse.
In an effort to maximise return, Feeney would encourage governments and other donors to match his pledges by offering gifts in return. In 1997, he proposed a donation of $100 million to Ireland’s universities on the condition that the government would follow suit. They did. All in all, a total of $226 million in Atlantic grants have leveraged $1.3 billion of government money to its university system.
Rather than slap his name on universities or hospitals he had helped, he would sell the idea to more egocentric tycoons who would pay big money for the privilege instead.
As of October 2012, Atlantic has made grants totalling more than $6.2 billion. The plan is to spend the remaining $1.3 billion by 2016 and have the foundation wound down by 2020 when Feeney shall be 89. He told the New York Times: “I want the last check I write to bounce”.
Through Atlantic, Feeney has given away 99 percent of his fortune to health, science, social, education and civil rights causes around the world. It is one of the largest charitable donors in each of the countries in which it operates.
His efforts in Ireland extended to quietly funding the peace process as well as gifting $1billion to education, The University of Limerick alone received $170million. Forbes said of his donations: “The man who arguably has done more for Ireland than anyone since Saint Patrick”.
Atlantic grants have also aided the appeasement of apartheid in South Africa and gifted $350 million in healthcare and higher education in Vietnam because Feeney disagreed with America’s invasion.
Other donations include: Operation Smile, a project to treat children born with cleft palates, $370 million to cancer projects, $117 million for AIDS research, $28 million to support the abolishment of capital punishment in the United States and a campaign for eight million children in the US to be covered by health insurance.
Few people alive have given away more, and no one at his level of wealth has ever given their fortune away so completely during their lifetime.
The Philanthropist’s Philanthropist
From 1982 until 1997, Feeney managed to keep his charitable endeavours under wraps, primarily because he shunned the attention it might bring. He only agreed, reluctantly, to disclose his donations when he became embroiled in a dispute with his former DFS partner, Robert Miller, over the sale of the DFS Group to LVHM.
It was assumed that the disagreement would end up in a lawsuit where his donations would be disclosed in any case. As a result of the exposure, the world learned that Feeney’s share of the sale belonged not to him but to his foundation.
Until then many charities had no idea where their mountains of money were coming from and those who did, were sworn to secrecy.
“I had to convince the board of trustees that it was on the level, that there was nothing disreputable and this wasn’t Mafia money,” says Frank Rhodes, the former president of Cornell University who later chaired Atlantic Philanthropies.
Though the sale gave up Feeney’s anonymity, it did give him a powerful following. Two of the world’s wealthiest men, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, both credit Feeney’s ‘giving while living’ philosophy as a major inspiration behind the $30 billion-strong Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Giving Pledge.
In February 2011, Feeney became a signatory to The Giving Pledge, a foundation that has convinced 90 of the world’s richest individuals to donate at least half of their wealth to charitable causes by the end of their life.
In a letter to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Feeney wrote, “I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living – to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition. More importantly, today’s needs are so great and varied that intelligent philanthropic support and positive interventions can have greater value and impact today than if they are delayed when the needs are greater.
Feeney also told Forbes “People who have money have an obligation. I wouldn’t say I’m entitled to tell them what to do with it but to use it wisely”.
The Humble Philanthropist
Even though his donations were eventually made public, Feeney still shuns publicity, grants few interviews and seeks little prestige for his efforts.
One of the great ironies of Feeney, is that he made his fortune selling luxury goods but rejects the same trappings of wealth and consumerism.
He is renowned for his frugality. He flies economy class because flying first-class doesn’t help him reach his destination any faster. He wears a $15 Casio watch because it keeps the time as aptly as a luxury timepiece. He doesn’t own a car because it is too difficult to park in the city. He is a self-confessed ‘shabby dresser’.
Although he raised his family in multimillion-dollar mansions (his ex-wife and five children later split $140 million of the DFS fortune), Feeney made his children work their way through college. They took menial jobs as maids, waiters and cashiers.
Today Feeney lives out of three foundation-owned apartments in Dublin, Brisbane and San Francisco. He stays in his daughter’s apartment when he visits New York.
“I try to live a normal life, the way I grew up,” Feeney said. “I set out to work hard, not to get rich.”
Honours and Further Reading
In 2012, all the universities of Ireland, North and South, awarded him an unprecedented joint Honorary Doctorate of Laws degree in 2012 – the first time such an award has been given.
In 2012, he also received Ireland’s ‘Presidential Distinguished Service Award’ for Irish Abroad, and the UCSF Medal for outstanding personal contributions to the University of California, San Francisco’s health science mission.
Feeney cooperated in the publication of a biography about him by Conor O’Clery, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing. Feeney is also the subject of a documentary by RTÉ Factual entitled Secret Billionaire: The Chuck Feeney Story.
Time Magazine have said: “Feeney’s beneficence already ranks among the grandest of any living American.”