NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his "One On 1" series with a profile of one of New York's most successful businessmen and philanthropists, Lewis Cullman.
Lewis Cullman knows about having money and giving it away - a lot of it.
He made hundreds of millions of dollars as CEO of Cullman Ventures, which bought and sold companies like the At A Glance Calendar Company: Bought in 1978 for $13 million; sold in 1999 for $550 million.
Cullman is now known primarily as one of the top philanthropists in New York. He and his wife Dorothy have donated an estimated $223 million, a spirit of giving first instilled by Cullman's mother.
“When I was a little boy she said, ÎI don't think I want to leave a lot of money. I'd rather give it away while I'm alive. What's the sense in leaving it if you're not around to get some pleasure out of it?’ I was very young, but that stuck in my mind. [I thought], ÎMaybe that makes some sense,’" he says.
Cullman's thoughts on making money and giving it away are contained in his 2004 book "Can't Take It With You." He doesn't have much patience for private foundations. Cullman thinks they should give away more money and should only have a life of 50 years.
“When the family leaves money, when no member of the family is left, it suddenly becomes a bureaucracy,” he says. “The guys that run it don't want to disband the foundation because they're cutting themselves out of work, so this is a motivation to keep everything alive."
The list of beneficiaries of the Cullmans' generosity reads like a “who's who” of New York's cultural world: the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
Cullman made his money in business, but he's always been a science guy. NY1 spent an afternoon with Cullman at another object of his financial affection, the New York Botanical Garden.
In 1994, Cullman brought the Museum of Natural History and the Botanical Garden together, establishing a program in his name in the field of molecular biology, which will soon be housed in the new Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory.
“I really think that in the very beginning, the people at the garden were not very enthusiastic,” Cullman says. “[They thought], ÎWell, we’ll accommodate this guy.’ Now of course it's the biggest thing since sliced bread."
And Cullman doesn’t just write a check — he is active in the programs to which he contributes, like Chess in the Schools. He's been chairman of the Chess in the Schools Foundation since 1997, and he and his wife Dorothy were recently honored for their work.
“Everyone likes to feel that he or she has done something worthwhile in this life,” he says. “You know, it doesn't happen that often. How many opportunities do you have to do something like that? And I've been very lucky to have them in a number of areas. I’m always looking for new ones too.”
Lewis Cullman's Manhattan apartment is filled with beautiful artwork from around the world. But this is not the rags to riches story that we see so often among successful people of Cullman's generation.
He grew up near Central Park in a family that made its money in the tobacco industry. He was sent off to boarding school at 11, eventually attended Hotchkiss and then Yale.
But Cullman says he wanted no part of the family business.
“I remember saying as a young kid I didn't believe in inherited wealth,” he says. “Where that came from, I don't know. But I know I said it at the time. I had a feeling that I wanted to make it on my own, and I did."
Cullman was a science buff. It led to a position in the Navy during World War II forecasting the weather.
First stationed in New Jersey, then Massachusetts, and finally North Africa, Cullman was responsible for making forecasts so that blimps could cross the Atlantic. He was that rare World War II serviceman who never saw action.
“I don't know how many people have ever had this experience,” he says. “I was in the Navy for almost four years and went overseas but was never aboard ship. Never. I went over there by air. It’s sort of an oddity to be in the Navy and never board a ship."
Cullman was scheduled to be on the battleship Antietam when Japan surrendered. He came home, and much to his father's chagrin, showed a bit of a rebellious streak by starting a weather service in Boston.
How did that play with his family?
“Not well. Not well,” he says. “Does it ever play well? I don't think it ever does."
But Cullman persisted. He traveled around New England trying to push his private weather service.
"That was a great early experience, to develop a business from nothing, with no history, and go out and try to peddle snow and ice warnings service to the superintendent of streets in the middle of the summer, a guy out in the back road oiling a road,” he says.
Cullman got out of the weather business, came back to New York, and a family friend helped him get into the banking business. He built an extremely successful financial career, which he chronicled in his 2004 book "Can't Take It With You."
He also wrote about early struggles in his personal life - his first wife's battle with mental illness, at a time when public discussion of the subject was taboo.
What was that period like for Cullman?
“Difficult. Very difficult,” he says. “I just didn't know how I was going to handle that. Actually, as I remember, I practically spent all my money on her, trying to help her. I felt that's what I should do."
She eventually was institutionalized. They eventually divorced, and Cullman raised their son alone.
Cullman and his current wife Dorothy have been together for 43 years.
His legacy in the business world is that many consider him the father of the leveraged buyout, the strategy of taking over a company with a significant amount of borrowed money using the company's assets as collateral.
Proponents would come to see this strategy as a method of making companies more efficient. Critics would argue the move caused economic disruption.
But in 1963, when Cullman and his associates bought the Orkin Exterminating Company in Atlanta, it was relatively new.
“That technique had been used in the real estate business for years and years and years,” he says. “The only thing I did was to say, ÎOK, why is a physical asset any better than a predictable stream of earnings?’ That's all I did. The way I started, there wasn't much downside. That was the beauty of it. When you put up $400, ÎGee, I lost my $400.’ Too bad."
Cullman has turned that penchant for making money into a passion for giving it away, an estimated quarter of a billion dollars. And it's on display at museums and libraries and places of science all over New York.
He's 86, still skis, and says he wants to give away another $100 million. So don't even mention the word retirement.
“When you don't have a reason get up in the morning and get out of bed, you might as well be dead. That's my philosophy,” he says. “I see these guys that retire and go to Florida and play golf and get drunk, and they are dead a year later. If you do something, keep your mind and your body active, you probably have a better chance of living longer.”
- Budd Mishkin