Chuck Feeney: The Billionaire Who Wasn’t

In 1960, Chuck Feeney and a business partner set up duty-free shops in airports to sell alcohol, cigarettes, and handbags produced in Japan to American travelers. The DFS Group, which was the holding company for Feeney’s business, earned 300% profit margins from the outset and had extremely high retained profits that gave him tens of millions of dollars in annual profits despite having only a few dozen physical locations in the 1960s and 1970s.

Feeney’s life has been marked by incredibly interesting moments, such as early investments in Facebook, Priceline, and Alibaba following the sale of DFS Group to Louis Vuitton in 1996. During the 1990s, he provided approximately $600 million to a constellation of causes, including funding for paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland to embrace electoral politics, the creation of an antiretroviral treatment for AIDS in Southern Africa, and even grants to create a public health system in Vietnam.

Despite this immense influence, Feeney has lived a life outside of the American spotlight, shunning most interviews, refusing to own a car or house (he has spent his late adult life renting various apartments in San Francisco), and eating at Irish pubs and bars rather than fancy restaurants.

What I find most unique about Feeney is that he is one of the few mega-wealthy individuals that committed to giving away most of his wealth while alive. To date, he has donated approximately $9 billion to a super-diverse collection of causes through his charity the Atlantic Philanthropies, which Feeney used to make large, anonymous donations to specific stories across the world that caught his attention.

And Feeney actually succeeded in giving everything away. By his own account, his net worth is only around $2 million, an absolute pittance compared to the fact that he was earning more profits than that from his airport duty-free profit stores in the early 1970s.

Most of the highly affluent are not comfortable seeing 99% of their fortune be spent during the course of their lives. Yet Feeney felt a moral imperative to do good right in the moment, often saying that “he can only wear one pair of pants at a time, and it didn’t make sense to buy anymore when some one out there needs clothes.” He also seemed to test the stifling bureaucracies that tend to accumulate when a foundation is set up to continue perpetually.

It’s amazing how much Feeney succeeded in maintaining his anonymity—most people have no idea who Chuck Feeney was, but if he had so desired, he could have been right there with Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Carlos Slim, or Jeff Bezos. He was a compounding machine who was committed to giving it all away. If he so desired, his net worth would be in the $50 billion range had he tried to accumulate assets and set up a charity mechanism to take effect after his death.

Feeney maintained this low profile by secretly transferring his assets to this charitable arm, not even telling his business partners that he was doing so. Also, when making donations, he would frequently demand that his name not be disclosed as the donor because he did not want the publicity. He came as close as anybody to reaching the highest form of charitable virtue—doing good for others without seeking anything in return, even publicity. His is the story of an incredible life well-lived, worthy of emulation.