The silent giver

 

Chuck Feeney has already given away $3 billion - and there's a few billion more to come, the publicity-shy philanthropist tells Conor O'Clery, North America Editor.

On January 22nd, 1997 Charles (Chuck) Feeney lifted a payphone in San Francisco airport and called the New York Times. As jets whined in the background he disclosed that he was the unknown philanthropist behind a secret offshore foundation that ranked among the top five philanthropic organisations in the world. He had decided to go public, he said, because a business deal was about to blow his cover.

After the New York Times splashed the story, Feeney retreated into near-anonymity. He has declined all requests for interviews until now, when he agrees to meet me and talk about his life and times, and about his passion for giving while living.

A short man with greying hair and amused blue eyes, he is wearing an open-neck checked shirt and off-the-peg blazer when I meet him in his foundation's Manhattan office. The stories about his frugality are true. His reading glasses cost $9 (I asked). He paid $15 for his plastic 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 says in his clipped New Jersey accent, adding in jest (I think): "Do you want to buy it? I have two."

In a busy New York street no one would point him out. He uses taxis and the subway, or walks, a courteous, nondescript man carrying documents in a plastic bag. That's the way he likes it. He doesn't own a car. When he needs one he rents the smallest two-door model. Yes, it's true, he says, that he flies economy class.

"A lot of bad-mouths say about me that I can stretch out on two economy seats," he jokes. He has just flown from San Francisco to Guam for $1,250 rather than pay $5,000 for business class. "It would be different if it got me there quicker."

The foundation is currently worth $3.6 billion but its 72-year-old founding chairman has no residential property. He doesn't like the idea of a mansion.

"I wouldn't be comfortable in an 8,000-square-foot home," he says. "You couldn't find anybody in it." He doesn't like being called "reclusive" either. Definitely not.

"I describe myself as different," he says. He has many friends in many cities, from Brisbane to Limerick. More than a few speak of his withering sense of humour.

Last year, Chuck Feeney electrified the world of philanthropy by announcing that his foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, would convert all its assets to cash and give it away within 15 years. It would focus on bold problem-solving rather than on self-perpetuation and change the focus to helping disadvantaged and vulnerable people. He hopes the acceptance of the principle of "giving while living" will be his legacy.

"Wealth brings responsibilities," he says. "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.

"I have a reluctance to say to people: 'Gee, you've got a lot of money, you should do something about that!' " he says. But he fumes privately, friends say, about tight-fisted tycoons in the US, where the richest 1 per cent gives only 2 per cent of its wealth to charity, and about the failure of Ireland's new rich to give back more. Feeney notes that investor Warren Buffett (72), the world's second richest man, is leaving all but a tiny percentage of his $36 billion fortune to a foundation after his death. Feeney sees such a decision as a kind of cop-out, instead of seeking out "the highest and best uses" for wealth while living.

"Money is more worthwhile to the people in need when things are tough rather than when things are good," says Feeney. "If I have $10 in my pocket and I do something with it today, it's already producing $10 worth of good." As opposed to paying out just 5 cent of every dollar each year, which is what most philanthropists do.

It is a double penalty, for example, to ask a student to pay to go to a university without a decent library. People with vast wealth should also start giving early in life, Feeney believes.

"Everyone knows when they're born but nobody knows when they die," he says. "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. It's a lot more fun. Giving gave me a lot more pleasure."

Otherwise, "I'm sure I'd have had a lot more grief".

Feeney's giving is ethical, his friends say. He was brought up a Catholic but is not a Mass-goer.

"The Catholic Church ground rules are pretty good - I will not lie, I will not steal - but it had lost its way someplace," he says.

Ed Walsh, president emeritus of Limerick University and a friend, remarks that "if Chuck Feeney was not a very successful businessman he would be a very successful Benedictine monk".

Feeney was not born to wealth. He was brought up in a working-class neighbourhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His father was an insurance underwriter, his mother a nurse whom he recalls helping people a lot. Her mother came from near Kinawley, Co Fermanagh.

Facing military call-up, he "jumped the line" at 17 and volunteered for post-war service in occupied Japan and Korea. On discharge, he got a 36-month GI scholarship to study hotel administration in Cornell, the Ivy League university in Ithaca, New York. The monthly scholarship cheques 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" he says.

At Cornell, Feeney entered a quiz for a course on money and banking.

"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,' " he recalls. When he graduated in 1956, he had some scholarship money left and applied for a political science course in a French university.

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 had mixed up the universities. Thinking fast, he replied: "If I wanted to go to Strasbourg I wouldn't be here." He was admitted.

After Grenoble, Feeney hooked up with a fellow Cornell student, Robert Miller, in Barcelona.

"I said to him I thought there was a good opportunity to make a buck selling to the fleet," he says.

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. They called their venture Duty Free Shoppers (DFS). They over-extended 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 restriction on its citizens in 1966. Feeney correctly foresaw a pent-up demand for foreign consumer goods, especially liquor. DFS opened 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 says. DFS became a global retail empire. In 1988, Forbes magazine included Feeney in 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 per cent interest in DFS to a number of foundations known as The Atlantic Philanthropies, based in Bermuda. Even his partner, Robert Miller, did not know.

The decision to give his wealth away was not sudden, he says, but "I did not want money to consume my life". He was always interested in helping disadvantaged children and his first gift was for a yard for a Catholic school.

After Feeney gave Cornell University $700,000 in 1981, he was besieged with requests and turned to a legal friend, Harvey Philip Dale, a brilliant New York law professor, to set up the foundations, keeping less than $5 million himself. To maintain secrecy, Feeney declined to take personal tax deductions on his giving.

"I just felt I didn't see the need for blowing a horn," he says 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 and not be recognised. The downside was that "when anybody said anything inaccurate you couldn't go back and correct them".

He set up foundations for his children to meet their needs. "All my kids have grown up quite normally," he says. "They have acquitted themselves honourably. Today they have all they need in life." His daughter, Diane Feeney, of San Francisco, is president of her family endowment, the French American Charitable Trust.

Robert Miller went in the opposite direction. He adopted an extravagant lifestyle, holding multi-million-dollar parties. He and his Ecuadoran wife, Chantal, own properties all over the world, including a grouse moor in Yorkshire, and his daughter married Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece.

Feeney devoted himself to running the global businesses of The Atlantic Philanthropies holding company, General Atlantic Group Ltd, which included hotels, spas, fitness clubs, shops and property, and helping decide what causes to support, from a maternity hospital in Vietnam to a college in Ireland. However, he has only one vote on the board, like any other director.

Unsolicited grant proposals were not entertained. The small staff went out and "kicked the tyres" of projects, but didn't micro-manage. Grants were paid by cashier's cheque to hide the source. Often recipients had no idea where the money came from. Feeney made fun of his own obsession with anonymity. Once, after Dale lectured trustees in Bermuda about the need for confidentiality, he returned to the room to find Feeney and the rest wearing glasses with big noses and moustaches. The day after he went public in 1997 he joked to a friend: "Now I'll get the credit for every anonymous donation."

Feeney often visited Ireland in the 1970s to order whiskey for DFS. He watched in horror on television in London the aftermath of the Enniskillen bombing on November 8th, 1987, which killed 11 people. "This is ridiculous," he thought. He began to wonder if he could help.

As an Irish-American businessman, he contacted the Irish American Partnership, an organisation set up by Fine Gael TD Paddy Harte, designed to tap into the goodwill and wealth of Irish-Americans. In 1988, he met board members Liam Connellan and Sean Condon in Ashford Castle.

"They reported that he had interesting ideas on Ireland lifting itself up, but it was all a bit vague," says John Healy, then running the partnership. When Healy later met Feeney in Dublin he told him if he wanted to help they could do with money to establish an office in New York. "I know a place that might entertain a proposal for $250,000," Feeney said casually. Healy, who is now CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, could find no one who knew about the place in Ithaca, New York Feeney had mentioned, "but we got the $250,000". That day they had lunch in the University Club in Dublin, where Healy introduced his guest to Ed Walsh, who invited him to see Limerick. To Walsh, he was "just another American" but "very concerned about helping". Only when Feeney insisted on flying Walsh to Cornell the following week, and introducing him to Frank Rhodes, the doyen of US university leaders and then chairman of The Atlantic Philanthropies, did Walsh realise that the mysterious Irish American was "no ordinary Joe Soap".

"I recognised here was a school on the uptake and a charismatic leader," recalls Feeney. "You need both things to support an organisation. The two things came together in him."

Walsh says the association with American universities "took us on to new terrain, a terrain occupied by American universities, and brought us into contact with leaders of American business".

"What was so astonishing was his wish to be ordinary," adds Walsh. "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."

"Chuck Feeney's meeting with Ed Walsh led to a quantitative jump in the quality and aspirations of Irish universities," says Frank Rhodes. "He brought Irish universities into conversation with one another. He enabled them to dream greater dreams. He lifted research to a new level."

The Atlantic Philanthropies would eventually donate several hundred million dollars to finance university research, libraries and dormitories on both sides of the Border, helping to transform Irish third-level education within a decade. To ensure anonymity on visits to universities, Feeney sometimes brought a photographer with no film in the camera.

"I'm not an event person," he explains. "There's too much focus on people." He refused honorary degrees. His name does not appear on any building.

"I guess it's a simplistic statement but the good that's done lives on," he says when I ask why. He speaks highly of J.P. McManus for giving €5 million to Limerick University to name its business school after the late Labour TD, Jim Kemmy.

"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."

The Enniskillen bombing helped propel Feeney into the promotion of reconciliation in Ireland. It struck him that such acts were extremely unworthy of Irish people.

"I decided to look around to see who was doing anything to end it," he says.

Feeney had met Niall O'Dowd through John Healy in New York. The publisher of Irish America and Irish Voice also saw him at first as just another Irish-American interested in Ireland.

"He was always funny and insightful," O'Dowd recalls. "I never really put two and two together until someone showed me an article in Forbes that he was worth billions."

"We had a few drinks together," says Feeney. "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."

O'Dowd took Feeney to meet Gerry Adams, first in Dublin and then in Belfast, where they went to the wrong "safe house". Feeney recalls a big guy opening the door and asking suspiciously: "Are you peelers?" He then accused them of being debt- collectors. The pair beat a hasty retreat and were rescued by the Sinn Féin leader in his armoured-plated taxi.

"I talked to him and I liked him," says Feeney. "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 of Irish-Americans with links to the Clinton White House that encouraged republicans to end violence and take their chances at the negotiating table.

"Clearly we weren't players in the action," says Feeney. "We were pushed up to the front because they sort of said 'Irish America's behind us. Stand in front of us'. We were not dumb enough to think that we were the motivating force. But clearly there was a time, a mood, to do something. And we were up there."

He funded a Sinn Féin office in Washington out of his own pocket, to the tune of $720,000 over three years. It was an unwritten contract. He dismisses reports that the funding ended because he became disillusioned with Sinn Féin. They were categorically not true, he says. He "took a lot of stick" in the media over his help to Sinn Féin and the inaccuracies irritated him.

"But the background is very simple," he says. "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 organisation. 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.

In the mid-1990s, Feeney decided to get out of DFS. He wanted a better cash-flow and he believed that the duty-free "cash cow" was drying up. The company that makes Moet & Chandon Champagne bought DFS, over Robert Miller's objections. The founding partnership ended in acrimony. The 1997 sale left Feeney's charity worth $3.5 billion. Feeney always used the analogy of "church and state" to separate giving and business in The Atlantic Philanthropies, and this gave him more for "church". (He started with one-fifth "church"; now the figure is four-fifths as the holdings are made into money). But the legal wrangling over the sale meant The Atlantic Philanthropies would be exposed.

Feeney's airport call to the New York Times, "to manage the truth" as he put it, was not made cold. It had been set up by foundation executives and the paper's editors. The story astonished friends of Harvey Dale at NYU, who never knew he had secretly been the president of one of the world's top private philanthropies, which had already disbursed $610 million.

Feeney doesn't share the sense of betrayal of corporate Irish-Americans about Irish attitudes to the US over Iraq.

"These people see the American side of things," he says. "I see the Irish side."

He is deeply angry about the Bush administration's alienation of the international community. Someone told him about being invited by Bush to watch the horse-racing movie, Seabiscuit, in the 50-seat White House cinema, he says, and 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 all his time on the move. He writes his travel schedule in ballpoint in a spiral exercise book. He is off to London next, and Cuba. In the first half of next year he will be in San Francisco, New York, Bermuda, London, Vietnam, Australia and Germany. So where is home?

"Home is where the heart is," he says. "And where my books are. Everywhere I go I have my books: New York, San Francisco, London, Brisbane, Limerick." He reads non-fiction voraciously. He is always passing articles of interest to friends.

"If you see a magazine with pages torn out," he tells me, "that means I've been reading it."

Personally worth about $1.5 million now, Feeney never cut himself off from his home town. In 1998, he organised a reunion in Castletroy Hotel, Limerick, for the class of 1948 of St Mary's High School in 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 had taken its toll.

He is always in the US in November 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 says. But he doesn't stay long. "I'd like to keep moving around," he adds, "as long as I'm able."