April 28, 2017

A Tale of Two Billionaires

We get out what we put in.

Have you heard the name Adolf Merckle? How about Chuck Feeney? Probably not, but by the standard of our modern world, net worth, both were incredibly successful.

Merckle developed his father’s chemical wholesale company into Germany’s largest pharmaceutical wholesaler, Phoenix Pharmahandel. In 2007, his estimated net worth was $12.8 billion, making him one of the world’s richest men. However, due in part to a bad bet on shares of Volkswagen stock falling (called a short in trading parlance) and other challenges born of the 2008 financial crisis, Merckle’s net worth decreased to $9.2 billion by May, 2008.

At the beginning of 2009, Merckle committed suicide by stepping in front of a train. He reportedly left a note for his family that simply read “I’m Sorry.”

“The desperate situation of his companies, caused by the financial crisis, the uncertainties of the last few weeks and his powerlessness to act, broke the passionate family entrepreneur and he took his own life,” his family said in a statement.

Contrast this with the story of Chuck Feeney. Like Merckle, Feeney was once one of the world’s richest men. He made his fortune by founding the Duty Free Shoppers (DFS) Group, the world’s largest travel retailer. When he sold the company to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), Feeney’s stake netted him $1.63 billion.

Well, that’s not 100% accurate. You see, in 1982, Feeney created The Atlantic Philanthropies and two years later quietly transferred his entire 38.75% share in DFS to the foundation. So when LVMH bought the company in 1996, every penny of that $1.63 billion went to Atlantic, not Feeney.

Feeney, in fact, has become one of the world’s legendary philanthropists, donating billions to support peace efforts and education in his native Ireland, public health structures in Vietnam and to enable the creation of the New York City Tech Campus at his alma mater, Cornell University.

In February 2011 he signed on to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s The Giving Pledge to give away the majority of his wealth to philanthropic causes. As of 2016, he’d made good on that commitment to the tune of over $7.5 billion. The now 85 year old is known to live modestly in spite of his wealth, living in a rented apartment and travelling coach.

So, on the one hand we have a man so distraught by the loss of a quarter of his vast fortune that he could no longer bear to live. On the other, a man who willing gave away 99% of his wealth, much of it as quietly as billions of dollars can truly be spent.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions and seek your own applications to this tale. In other words, do not mistake this for a treatise for or against the accumulation of great wealth.

Instead, to me, this is simply a stark reminder that we get out what we put in, whether that is in a campaign, a job, a career or a life. And if what we put in is stress, anxiety, fear or greed, well, what comes out the other side can be devastating. If, on the other hand, we approach our endeavors with calm, clarity, gratitude and generosity, what we get back won’t only be measured in dollars and cents, no matter how many billions there might be.


  1. Kim Schmidt

    Another wonderful read, Randy! What a way to put things in perspective, set the tone for the weekend and give me and all the other email recipients some food for thought.

    Keep the tales/articles coming! :o)

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