Why Billionaire Chuck Feeney Wants to Die Broke

Chuck Feeney

Chuck Feeney worked incredibly hard his whole life to lose more money than most people can imagine. If you read the news, watch social media, or even talk to most people, you probably know that the world’s billionaires are a wholly self-contained level of weirdness. With Jeff Bezos racing Elon Musk to space in his very interesting rocket and Warren Buffet refusing to spend four dollars on breakfast and saving every penny he can, eccentric is the only word for it. Feeney is just as unusual. However, he isn’t interested in having money, or at least nowhere near as much as he made. We’ll take a deeper look at why billionaire Chuck Feeney wants to die broke.

How Chuck Feeney Made A Fortune

Born April 23, 1931, in the middle of the Great Depression, Charles Francis Feeney wasn’t raised wealthy but rather made his own money. In fact, he was born to blue-collar parents who sent him to be educated at Elizabeth’s St. Mary of the Assumption High School. It was this education which he credits with his charitable nature. In 2016 he became the largest single donor in the school’s history and gave back a quarter of a million dollars, but that is just the tip of the iceberg for this incredible man. Doubtless, growing up when so many people were struggling and starving also deeply influenced who Chuck became. While some people would have seen all the suffering and focused on ensuring their own security, that wasn’t how Feeney reacted. Instead, he always worked on ways to give. Chuck served in the U.S. Air Force as a radio operator during the Korean War, which eventually led him to a career selling duty-free liquor with the help of his college roommate Robert Warren Miller.

Most of their customers were U.S. naval personnel who frequented the numerous Mediterranean ports where resale rates were already notably higher than most American businesses. Although Feeney and Miller didn’t pioneer the idea, duty-free shopping was still a new concept at the time. This type of shopping allowed consumers to purchase luxury goods and high-end items without paying the prohibitive import taxes. The pair would add tobacco and even cars to their roster of goods over time, and in late 1960 they founded the Duty-Free Shoppers Group (DFS Group). Over the next thirty years, Feeney and Miller and other smaller investors built their empire, taking advantage of the higher retail prices while also managing to offer consumers a discount. By 1996 Feeney was ready to move on. He had collected a sizeable fortune and decided to sell his shares to the luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. Or so it appeared, but his story was already much stranger than anyone anticipated. Chuck was not in business merely to grow personal wealth.

Secret Sales and Even More Secretive Philanthropy

The shares Chuck Feeney sold were opposed by Miller, but more than that, they weren’t even Feeney’s shares to sell. Years before, in 1982, Chuck had founded The Atlantic Philanthropies. Two years after founding TAP, he transferred his entire stake in DFS to the charity. For over a decade, The Atlantic Philanthropies had secretly held a 38.75% stake in DFS worth about a half-million dollars. No one would discover this until Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy wanted to buy them out. Ultimately, Feeney would share his story with Judith Miller of the New York Times. Her story “He Gave Away 600 Million, And No One Knew,” was a sensation. People began calling Chuck the ‘James Bond’ of philanthropy, and rightly so. He was basically a secret agent of good who traveled around the world and accomplished incredible feats of charity without making his actions public knowledge.

Chuck may have chosen to share the story only because it helped ensure the sale would go through. Not long after the news about Feeney’s secret charity work came out, another New York Times reporter, Stephanie Strom wrote about the DFS sale for $2.47 billion. Not all the shares were from Chuck’s portion of the business, but The Atlantic Philanthropies gained $1.63 billion. Although Chuck Feeney was well-to-do from his work building the Duty Free Shops, it appears he might not technically have been a billionaire. Since The Atlantic Philanthropies was the actual recipient of the money from its formerly secret 38.75% stake in DFS, the money wasn’t exactly Feeney’s money. He made money, but he didn’t do anything as gauche as keep it.

General Atlantic

In 1980, before he created The Atlantic Philanthropies, Chuck Feeney founded General Atlantic, which would become the captive investments team within The Atlantic Philanthropies. Initially, GA focused on investing in real estate and retailing, computer software, and oil and gas exploration. Needless to say, those are all fields that have prospered and grown substantially since the 1980s. In 2021 General Atlantic has roughly $53 billion in assets under management.

Is Chuck Feeney Still Wealthy

Chuck Feeney told Steve Bertoni of Forbes that he estimated he’d set aside about two million dollars for retirement with his wife. While that sum is far from insubstantial, it is not billions. Feeney never had billions because he gave it away. His life’s work is based on the simple idea of “Giving While Living,” wherein the wealthy help ease the world’s burdens by giving away what they don’t need, not after they die, but while they are still alive to see the impact of their work. Chuck retired wealthy by most people’s modest standards, but he also gave away an estimated eight billion dollars in his working life. Although he generated billions, it was never in some account with his name on it. In fact, it’s easy to follow his plan in retrospect and see when he took action to start giving away all the money he could make but didn’t want or need. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett credited Chuck Feeney for inspiring them when they launched the Giving Pledge. Through that pledge, other millionaires and billionaires are also putting their money back into the world to do good, albeit more publicly, and often only after they pass away.

Final Thoughts

Although we often look at the world with cynicism, seeing only the bad, there are people out there who are making things better. With wealth comes power, and some people, even (non) billionaires like Chuck Feeney, use their power to create a better world. Why does Chuck Feeney want to die ‘broke?’ Well, he feels like it’s the right thing to do for the world and the people around him, and we couldn’t admire him more for it if we tried.

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