Book Review – The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing

Have you ever bought anything in an airport Duty-Free Store (DFS)?  I never have.  I’ve walked by plenty of them, wondering who purchases expensive cognac and cases of cigarettes to have them mailed home.  Now after reading this book, I know the answer: Japanese tourists during the 70’s and 80’s.

I would never have thought of DFS as a business opportunity, but Chuck Feeney did.  Together with a few partners, he built it from scratch into a company that sold for $6 billion.  Not many people can claim that feat.  But even more remarkably, he gave away over 99% of his wealth while still alive.  He lives a modest lifestyle, wearing a plastic watch, flying economy class, and not owning a house.  Who is this guy?  For most of his life, that was difficult to answer because he was so incredibly secretive.  DFS made its money by opening stores in airports where the bidding was done in secret.  To know a competitor’s bid would give you the power to outbid him by $1, and win the right to operate a storefront on prime real estate.  The book notes that Feeney got his start in secrecy in the US Air Force, working on coded radio transmissions.  But the way I read it, he was just a shrewd businessman.  While in the military, he got access to the travel logs of navy ships and used them to run a retail operation, taking orders to have goods sent home — a precursor to DFS.  Naturally his secret knowledge of the logs were critical to his business and kept competitors at bay, not to mention the authorities who would have stopped his access to that information.  Secretly skirting lax international tax laws was another core strategy for DFS.

His desire for secrecy and anonymity carried into his philanthropy as well.  Instead of having buildings named after himself, he didn’t even let grantees know who made the donation!  Naturally that made some people nervous, thinking they were getting laundered money.  So Feeney established The Atlantic Philanthropies and built a network of respected leaders who would vouch that the money was legitimate while keeping his privacy.

Many of us wonder and perhaps fantasize about what it would be like to be incredibly wealthy.  But Chuck Feeney lived it and saw the dangers face-to-face.  A rich friend of his lost a daughter to suicide.  And many others were in constant fear of kidnapping.  Even the good sides — the mansions, the yachts, and the parties — bored Chuck.  He thought it a terribly superficial way to live and retreated into his work, traveling constantly.  His wife thought differently and enjoyed the high-class lifestyle.  Unfortunately they divorced, and he gave her all of the mansions.

When the Iraq war started, tourism plummeted and brought down DFS revenues as well.  By then Feeney had secretly put most of his holdings in Atlantic Philanthopies which had made long-term giving pledges.  He became aware that a fluctuating revenue stream couldn’t support constant giving, so he decided to sell his share of DFS.  That created many complications, including bitter fights with his DFS partners, breaking life-long friendships.  In addition, his sale made public all of the details of his business and philanthropy, tearing away his valued privacy.  He decided to control the PR flow by offering an exclusive article for the New York Times, which eventually led to this book.

In his early years, Chuck would often help kids by paying for their summer camp or school tuitions.  He was known for taking kids in to live with his family on occasion.  Later on, through his foundation, Feeney helped Ireland by stabilizing its politics and investing in education.  The book profiled many of his other philanthropic projects, and his hands-on approach with gradually increasing grants.  But the best summary of his giving philosophy is found here:

In summary, Chuck Feeney made a lot of money because he was smart, hard-working, opportunistic, and had good partners.  He didn’t want to keep his money because it enjoyed making it more than holding it or spending it.  He didn’t want to be known for being rich.  He liked the ordinary lifestyle.  And he had a lifelong gift of helping the needy, particularly young people.

“You can only wear one pair of shoes” — Chuck Feeney

3 thoughts on “Book Review – The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing

  1. One of the interesting things about Atlantic Philanthropies is that they have a spend-down mandate. Most foundations spend only a tiny fraction of their assets each year giving grants; this allows them to exist in perpetuity (similar to university endowments). Atlantic will spend down by 2020. This certainly brings an immediacy to their work in doing good.

      • I believe most foundations are set up for perpetuity to serve as an eternal income stream for other nonprofits (whose identities may change over the years).

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