The billionaire who gave it all away

Tue, Jul 10, 2012, 01:00

BACKGROUND:HE DOESN’T own a house or car, flies economy, wears a plastic watch and lives in small apartments rented by his foundation in various cities. Chuck Feeney isn’t even a billionaire, as he is often described, let alone a millionaire, since he gave away almost all his money to his Atlantic Philanthropies foundation three decades ago.

Renowned for his frugal lifestyle and desire to shun the limelight, he has refused offers of honorary degrees and only broke cover to encourage others to emulate his “giving while living” philosophy.

“He has no ego . . . He always chooses the second-cheapest wine from the wine list,” according to his biographer, former Irish Times journalist Conor O’Clery. “When we travelled together he was always dressed like a down-at-heel American tourist.”

Now 81, Feeney is frail but mentally alert, and still constantly on the move around the world. Much of his attention now is focused on winding up the charity operation that has donated more than €5 billion to causes in six countries since the 1980s.

Charles “Chuck” Feeney, who comes from blue-collar Irish- American stock in New Jersey, made his fortune in duty-free shops in the Far East. With a partner he set up Duty Free Shoppers (DFS) in 1960, which took off with the boom in Japanese tourism in the Pacific. By the 1980s it was the world’s largest retail chain and he was on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest people, though by then he had already transferred his wealth to Atlantic Philanthropies.

He had decided that he did not want money to consume his life. He made provision for his family – he has five children and is in his second marriage – and kept less than $5 million (€4.1 million) himself. He was always interested in helping disadvantaged children, and his first gift was for a yard for a Catholic school.

Grants were paid by cashier’s cheque to hide the source. Often recipients had no idea where the money came from.

Feeney, a holder of dual US-Irish citizenship, often visited Ireland in the 1970s to order whiskey for DFS. After the Enniskillen bombing killed 11 people in 1987, he contacted the Irish American Partnership, which taps into the goodwill and wealth of Irish-Americans. On a visit to Dublin, he was introduced to Ed Walsh, the head of what was to become University of Limerick. It was the start of a fruitful relationship for the Irish third- level sector and Ireland generally.

Today, Atlantic focuses on Australia, Bermuda, Ireland, South Africa, the US and Vietnam.

Feeney first spoke about his identity to the New York Times in 1997, when it was going to be revealed anyway as a result of a business dispute. He co-operated with O’Clery’s biography to encourage others to give away their fortunes while they are still alive. Last year he signed up to the Giving Pledge, set up to encourage philanthropy in the US by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Even after three decades, curiosity about the man who gave it all away is unabated; a new edition of O’Clery’s biography will be published next January and there is talk of a film treatment.