Charles Francis Feeney
April 23, 1931
Elizabeth, New Jersey, U.S.
|Alma mater||St. Mary of the Assumption High School|
|Occupation||Founder of Duty Free Shoppers Group; Founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies|
|Net worth||US$2 million (donated: US$8 billion) (September 2020)|
|Spouse(s)||Danielle J. Feeney (divorced)|
Charles Francis Feeney (born April 23, 1931) is an Irish-American businessman and philanthropist who made his fortune as a co-founder of the Duty Free Shoppers Group. He is the founder of The Atlantic Philanthropies, one of the largest private charitable foundations in the world. Feeney gave away his fortune in secret for many years, until a business dispute resulted in his identity being revealed in 1997. Feeney has given away more than $8 billion.
Early life and education
Feeney was born in New Jersey during the Great Depression and came from a modest background of blue collar Irish-American parents in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His ancestry can be traced to County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. Feeney graduated from Elizabeth's St. Mary of the Assumption High School in 1949; he has credited his charitable spirit to his education at St. Mary. His 2016 donation of $250,000 was the largest in the school's history from a single contributor. He served as a U.S. Air Force radio operator during the Korean War, and began his career selling duty-free liquor to U.S. naval personnel at Mediterranean ports in the 1950s.
The concept of "duty-free shopping"—offering high-end concessions to travelers, free of import taxes—was in its infancy when Feeney and his college classmate Robert Warren Miller started selling duty-free liquor to American servicemen in Asia in the 1950s. They later expanded to selling cars and tobacco, and founded the Duty Free Shoppers Group (DFS Group) on November 7, 1960. DFS began operations in Hong Kong, later expanding to Europe and other continents. DFS' first major breakthrough came in the early 1960s, when it secured the exclusive concession for duty-free sales in Hawaii, allowing it to market its products to Japanese travelers.
DFS eventually expanded to off-airport duty-free stores and large downtown Galleria stores and became the world's largest travel retailer. By the mid-1990s, DFS was distributing profits of up to $300 million a year to Feeney, Miller, and two smaller partners. "The rich returns came about in large part because DFS, like most other retailers in Asia, took a far higher markup on Western luxury items than was the case in Europe and the U.S. In New York, a retailer might price a designer handbag at 2.2 or 2.3 times the wholesale price. But in Asia, the retail price was a standard three times wholesale."
In 1996, Feeney and a partner sold their stakes in DFS to the French luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH). Miller opposed the sale, and before a presumptive lawsuit could reveal that Feeney's stake was owned not in fact by him but by The Atlantic Philanthropies, Feeney outed himself in a The New York Times article written by Judith Miller. Atlantic made $1.63 billion from the sale.
In 1982, Feeney created The Atlantic Philanthropies, and in 1984, secretly transferred his entire 38.75% stake in DFS, then worth about $500 million, to the foundation. Not even his business partners knew that he no longer personally owned any part of DFS. For years, Atlantic gave away money in secret, requiring recipients to not reveal the sources of their donations. "Beyond Mr. Feeney's reticence about blowing his own horn, 'it was also a way to leverage more donations––some other individual might contribute to get the naming rights.'" The largest single beneficiary of Feeney's giving is his alma mater Cornell University, which has received nearly $1 billion in direct and Atlantic gifts, including a donation of $350 million enabling the creation of Cornell's New York City Tech Campus on Roosevelt Island. Through Atlantic, he has also donated around one billion dollars to education in Ireland, mostly to third-level institutions such as the University of Limerick and Dublin City University. Feeney has given substantial personal donations to Sinn Féin, a left-wing Irish nationalist party that is historically associated with the IRA. He has also supported the modernization of public-health structures in Vietnam.
In February 2011, Feeney became a signatory to The Giving Pledge. In his letter to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the founders of The Giving Pledge, Feeney writes, "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." He gave away his last $7 million in late 2016, to the same recipient of his first charitable donations: Cornell. Over the course of his life, he has given away more than $8 billion. At its height, Atlantic had over 300 employees and 10 offices across the globe.
In July 2017, The Atlantic Philanthropies noted the existence of an advance-fee scam email claiming to distribute money to "randomly selected individuals" worldwide, and using a link to the Wikipedia article to falsely verify the scammer's identity as "Charles Feeney".
On September 14, 2020, Feeney closed down the Atlantic Philanthropies after the nonprofit accomplished its mission of giving away all of Feeney's money by 2020.
Feeney has been called the "James Bond of philanthropy", for his secrecy and success. In 1997, Time said that "Feeney's beneficence already ranks among the grandest of any living American." He has shunned publicity, although he cooperated in his 2007 biography, 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, titled Secret Billionaire: The Chuck Feeney Story.
In 2010, he received the Cornell Icon of Industry Award. In 2012, all the universities of Ireland, North and South, jointly conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Laws on Feeney. During the year, he also received Ireland's "Presidential Distinguished Service Award" for Irish Abroad. In 2012, he also was awarded the UCSF Medal for outstanding personal contributions to the University of California, San Francisco's health science mission. In 2014, Warren Buffett said of Feeney, "[he's] my hero and Bill Gates' hero. He should be everybody's hero." On the 160th Anniversary of Queensland being created, June 6, 2019, Feeney was made an Honorary Queensland Great for his contribution to Queensland.
In December 2020, Cornell University announced that they would rename East Avenue, a road that goes through the center of campus and sits alongside his alma mater, Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, "Feeney Way," to honor Feeney for his contributions to the university.
Feeney has married twice. His first wife, Danielle, is French. They have four daughters, Juliette M. Feeney-Timsit, Caroleen A. Feeney, Diane V. Feeney, Leslie D. Feeney-Baily and one son, Patrick A. Feeney. His second wife, Helga, is his former secretary.
He is known for his frugality. According to a The New York Times article in 2017, "Until he was 75, he traveled only in coach, and carried reading materials in a plastic bag." He does not own a car or a house and wears a $10 Casio F-91W watch.
- 57-min Biography presented by The Atlantic Philanthropies
- 4-min Chuck Feeney on Giving While Living presented by The Atlantic Philanthropies
- Dwyer, Jim (2007-09-26). "Out of Sight, Till Now, and Giving Away Billions". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-09-30.
- Miller, Judith (1997-01-23). "He Gave Away $600 Million, and No One Knew". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-01-05.
- Dwyer, Jim (2017-01-05). "'James Bond of Philanthropy' Gives Away the Last of His Fortune". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-01-05.
- Haydon, Tom. "Billionaire remembers his Elizabeth high school with $250K donation", NJ Advance Media for NJ.com, November 12, 2016. Accessed January 6, 2017. "On Thursday, the international foundation Feeney started, Atlantic Philanthropies, gave $250,000,000 to his alma mater, St. Mary of Assumption High School in Elizabeth. The donation is the largest single contribution to the high school, St. Mary officials said. Feeney graduated from the school in 1949 and his desire to donating to others was inspired from his time at the school, Christopher Oechsli the president and CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies, told St. Mary students."
- "The secret billionaire giveaway". Reuters. 2017-09-21. Retrieved 2017-04-07.
- Povoledo, Elisabetta (2016-09-29). "In Venice, Duty-Free Shopping Takes on a Whole New Look". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-04-07.
- Bird, Laura (1997-02-10). "LVMH Nears Agreement to Buy Remaining Stake in DFS Chain". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2017-01-06.
- Strom, Stephanie (1996-10-30). "LVMH to Buy Duty-Free Empire for $2.47 Billion". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-01-06.
- O'Clery, Conor (2007). The Billionaire Who Wasn't: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune. Public Affairs. ISBN 9781586483913.
- Bertoni, Steven (2012-09-18). "Chuck Feeney: The Billionaire Who Is Trying To Go Broke". Forbes. Retrieved 2015-03-12.
- Pérez-Peña, Richard (2011-12-19). "Cornell Chosen to Build Science School in New York City". The New York Times.
- "Letter : Charles F. Feeney : February 3, 2011" (PDF). Archived from the original on July 25, 2011. Retrieved 2013-11-08.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
-  Archived March 4, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
- Bertoni, Steven (15 September 2020). "Exclusive: The Billionaire Who Wanted To Die Broke . . . Is Now Officially Broke". Forbes. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
- "Alert: Beware of Email Scam Claiming to be from Atlantic, Charles Feeney or Christopher Oechsli".
- "History and Founder". Atlantic Philanthropies. Retrieved 2011-06-15.
- on YouTube
- "Cornell Chronicle: Hotel School to honor industry icons". News.cornell.edu. 2010-05-27. Retrieved 2011-06-15.
- Minihan, Mary (7 September 2012). "Universities honour their 'Renaissance man' Feeney". The Irish Times. Retrieved 6 May 2013.
- O'Shea, James (6 September 2012). "Don Keough, Chuck Feeney, Loretta Brennan Glucksman recognized with Irish gov awards". Irish Central. Retrieved 6 May 2013.
- Kim, Leland. "Four Successful Innovators Earn UCSF's Highest Honor". The University of California San Francisco Website. The University of California San Francisco. Retrieved 6 May 2013.
- Alexander, Dan (2014-06-18). "Warren Buffett Honors His Hero, The Billionaire Who Secretly Gave It All Away". Forbes. Retrieved 2017-01-06.
- Palaszczuk, Annastacia (June 6, 2019). "Eight more Greats awarded on Queensland's 160th birthday". Ministerial Media Statements. Queensland Cabinet and Ministerial Directory. Retrieved September 16, 2020.
- Chuck Feeney Queensland Great 2019, joins Kenny Fletcher in the Brisbane Tennis Trail. June 23, 2019. Retrieved September 16, 2020.
- Wilensky, Joe. "Cornell's East Avenue to be renamed 'Feeney Way'". Cornell Chronicle. Retrieved 10 December 2020.
- Taoiseach launches Chuck Feeney Biography at Trinity College Dublin
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