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New Billionaire: How A Poor Immigrant Scored A $4.3 Billion Fortune In Cable

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Rocco Commisso Mediacom

Rocco Commisso darts around his office, gnawing a stick of nicotine gum and playing show-and-tell. “Look at the rates,” he says, holding up a plaque celebrating a $2.4 billion financing round from 2001, his cable firm’s largest ever. Up next are some personal keepsakes: a picture with fellow billionaire Charles Dolan, a golden telescope to take in views of the Catskill Mountains, a signed photo of Pelé, the Brazilian footballer. Every few minutes Commisso calls out to his assistant as if this tour is taking place against his will. “Jen, this guy wants to see all of my personal stuff!” he yells. Then he scans the room for another prize to trot out.

Forgive him the braggadocio. Commisso, 68, has risen farther than nearly anyone in America. The son of a penniless carpenter, he immigrated from Italy at age 12 unable to speak a word of English. A quirky talent for playing the accordion got him into Catholic school, the first step on a prosperous path that included stops at Columbia University and the Royal Bank of Canada before he founded his cable company, Mediacom, in 1995.

Mediacom focused on buying cable assets in rural areas, where prices were low and competition scant. The firm has increased its top line every year since its founding; revenue neared $1.9 billion in 2017. Commisso owns the company outright, and its value constitutes virtually his entire fortune. Thanks to a white-hot mergers-and-acquisitions market, the business is worth an estimated $4.3 billion—and Commisso, who makes his debut on Forbes ‘ Billionaires list this year, seems ready to cash out.

READ MORE: Forbes Billionaires: Meet The Richest People On The Planet

He founded Mediacom at a time of industry upheaval, when new federal regulations, which both restricted prices and increased competition, were scaring small cable operators into selling. As others jumped ship, he leveraged about $3 million—most of his small fortune—to start buying the cheapest cable lines available, concentrating on secondary markets in states like Iowa and Georgia. Even his offices are far off the beaten path: Mediacom HQ is in Chester, New York, a verdant speck of 12,000 people, 25 minutes from West Point.

Commisso is as much a financier as he is a cable guy—he has an M.B.A. from Columbia and spent nine years as CFO of Cablevision Industries. Mediacom’s rapid growth was enabled by arbitraging differing perceptions of cable assets in the debt and equity markets. Banks, reassured by the sector’s predictable cash flows, were willing to lend at reasonable rates even as investors, spooked by regulation, were willing to sell cheaply. In his first five years in business, Commisso made more than 20 acquisitions. Mediacom at one point accumulated $3 billion in debt, over eight times operating cash flow.

Commisso admits he borrowed to the precipice of insolvency, but he stayed afloat by keeping an eagle eye on costs and by meticulously managing his debt. “You know, we watch the store,” he says.

But now the core business is changing. The broadband generation is increasingly cutting the cord and relying on online services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video to entertain themselves. Over the past ten years, the number of subscribers to Mediacom’s television offerings has plummeted 38% to 821,000. This is a faster rate of decline than the 3% the industry as a whole has suffered.

Mediacom’s woes in television are fueled, in part, by its success in broadband. Commisso has aggressively invested in tech upgrades; customers in places like Cecil, Georgia, enjoy Internet speeds on par with those in Seattle and San Francisco. Mediacom’s broadband subscriber base has increased 84% over the last decade, far outpacing the industry average of 54%—and many customers are using their lightning-fast connections to watch TV and movies online.

Hence the temptation for Commisso to cash out soon. In his mind, there is little left to prove. “In the history of Italian immigration, in the business world, I don’t think there’s another one like me in the last 100 years,” he says.

ROCCO COMMISSO GREW UP in Calabria, Italy, as the country reeled from its defeat in World War II. “We were losers,” he says. “Just like the Americans coming back from Vietnam, we came back as losers.” Commisso’s father, Giuseppe, served in North Africa during the war and was captured in 1942 by the British. He spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp in Kenya. When he returned home, work was scarce.

In 1956, Giuseppe sailed to the United States to start anew. “What a great country, America,” Rocco says. “Prisoners of war got preferential treatment to come here.” Rocco, meanwhile, stayed back in Italy with his mother and two sisters. In 1962, when he was 12, they joined his older brother and father in Baden, Pennsylvania, 10 miles from Joe Namath’s hometown. The family moved to the Bronx the following year.

From the outset, New York City brought good luck. Just after Commisso arrived, he spotted an ad for a talent competition. He entered as a solo accordion act and won, which led to a gig playing intermission music at the Wakefield Theatre on East 233rd Street in the Bronx. More important, it drew the attention of the Wakefield’s manager, who wrote a letter to a local Catholic school, Mount Saint Michael Academy, and got Commisso admitted without an entrance exam, which he had arrived too late to take. “I ended up being the only kid that ever got in without taking the test,” he says.

Commisso is now one of the largest benefactors of Mount Saint Michael. But back then he could barely afford to pay his own way. As a teenager he worked long hours at his brother’s diner to come up with the $300 annual tuition.

When college application time rolled around, Commisso again relied on a favor. His gym teacher called the soccer coach at Columbia University and told him about a promising student with good grades. Within a month, Commisso, who hadn’t even played soccer in high school, was accepted to the prestigious college with a full scholarship.

A natural athlete, Commisso had shown a knack for the sport in Italy under starkly different conditions: on cement, with a ball made of rags. That training somehow translated to the Ivy League turf. By his senior year he was co-captain of the varsity squad and was invited to try out for the 1972 Olympic team. The trials went terribly. Commisso arrived out of shape, with the lung strength of a smoker; the other players ran laps around him. Still, his legacy remains strong at Columbia, which named its soccer stadium for him in 2013, in recognition of the millions of dollars he has donated to the university.

After graduating in 1971, Commisso found work at a Pfizer plant in Brooklyn, a job he kept even after beginning an M.B.A. program at Columbia in 1974. Each day he rose at 7 a.m., attended class, then headed to the plant. At midnight, when his shift ended, he spent two hours on the subway getting home to the Bronx.

Commisso graduated with one of Columbia’s top honors, the Business School Service Award, and a plan to go into investment banking. But no offers came in. “There was discrimination,” he says. “I’ll never forget the guy from Kuhn Loeb telling me, ‘Rocco, you know what your problem is? You’re neither Jewish nor Irish. The Italians haven’t arrived on Wall Street.'”

So Commisso took a commercial banking job at Chase Manhattan Bank (now part of JPMorgan Chase). He later moved on to the Royal Bank of Canada, where he led lending to media and communications businesses. “I got attracted in banking to these types of guys and ladies,” he says. “We used to call them ‘the cowboys.’ The cable cowboys. Because they dressed differently than everybody, they talked differently than everybody—and they were entrepreneurs.”

In 1986 Commisso left banking to join one such cowboy—Alan Gerry, the founder of Cablevision—in Liberty, New York, a 50-minute drive from Mediacom’s headquarters. Commisso spent almost a decade as Gerry’s finance chief. “He’s one of the brightest guys I’ve ever known,” says Gerry, now 89 years old.

After the new regulations hit the industry in 1992, Gerry opted out, selling Cablevision to Time Warner for more than $3 billion in 1996. Commisso hated that decision. “This is a phenomenal time to buy as opposed to sell,” he recalls thinking. “And to prove it, I’m going to start my own company.”

Rocco Commisso Mediacom

Commisso poses at Mediacom HQ (Franco Vogt for Forbes)

COMMISSO’S OPTIMISM WAS NOT shared by his peers. That disparity only widened in 1996 when an additional batch of regulations brought new competition from telecom firms, like SBC Communications and Ameritech, that had previously been barred from the cable television space. “The fear was that the phone companies would enter the cable business and, with their stronger balance sheets and brand names, crush the cable companies,” says Craig Moffett, co-founder of the equity research firm MoffettNathanson.

That anxiety made it possible for Commisso to buy cable assets on the cheap, and he went all in. He bought his first network of cable lines, in rural Ridgecrest, California, for $18.8 million in 1996, using a loan from his old friends at Chase Manhattan.

The risk was extreme, and to outsiders Commisso might have seemed a loose cannon. He can be brash and domineering, his Calabrian accent amplifying heated bursts of profanity. But the banks trusted his background in finance.

After Ridgecrest, Commisso went on an acquisition spree, borrowing millions—then hundreds of millions—to buy up cable systems in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama. He closed nine purchases in his first three years. “[I] was viewed as just a crazy buyer who’d buy anything that was for sale,” he says.

Commisso then invested heavily in infrastructure. To date he has spent $2.5 billion upgrading his networks, which has deterred other operators from entering his territory. Historically, Mediacom has instead fought for subscribers against satellite-television firms such as DirecTV. Phone companies, despite the early panic, never posed much of a menace.

By the end of the 1990s, gloomy forecasts for the sector had softened. Commisso seized on that and, with perfect timing, took Mediacom public on Nasdaq at a $2.5 billion valuation in February 2000, just weeks before the dot-com collapse. In all, he raised $380 million to pay down debt, and his Class B shares allowed him to retain majority voting control. “Nobody could kick me out,” he says.

The following July, Mediacom made its largest acquisition ever. After AT&T became strapped for cash, it put some of its cable assets on the market. Commisso snatched up properties in Georgia, Iowa and Missouri for $2.2 billion.

READ MORE: Richard Branson – The Shy Billionaire In Space

By late 2002, company debt had exploded to $3 billion. The banks wouldn’t lend another dime, and Commisso was forced to end his buying binge. “What saved us was not doing the next deal,” he says. “It was a great decision to buy when we did. It was an even better decision to stop when we did.”

Through shrewd balance-sheet management and frequent refinancing, Mediacom never missed a loan payment, allowing it to stay afloat until 2009, when it finally began producing enough cash to start paying down the principal debt.

Still, stockholders were not impressed. Mediacom’s share price fell nearly 80% in the decade following its IPO. By 2010, Commisso decided he’d had enough of the public markets. He moved to buy the company outright.

After tense negotiations and a shareholder lawsuit, he acquired the business in March 2011 for roughly $600 million, a 64% premium. Borrowing against the company’s assets, he became its sole owner.

Again, his timing could not have been better.

SINCE COMMISSO TOOK Mediacom private, the company’s value has skyrocketed sevenfold. The question now is when Commisso will lock in his gains and walk away.

The company is an attractive acquisition prospect for larger firms like Altice, which has scooped up several operators in the last several years, driving up valuations across the industry. Mediacom is the dominant broadband provider in much of its territory, and its new gigabit-speed service is on par with the fastest in the country. “For a large portion of their footprint, they’ve got a clear product advantage over their competitors,” says James Ratcliffe, managing director at Evercore ISI.

Commisso is coy about plans to sell but admits he’s taken multiple meetings with investment bankers in the past year. A man who made his fortune on the basis of good timing, he seems to concede that his work is largely finished. “Unless I’m here on earth just to become the biggest, the biggest, the biggest buffoon, I’m very happy with what we have accomplished,” he says. “I’m not Warren Buffett. I’m very content.” – Written by 

Billionaires

In Defense Of Kylie Jenner: Are Any Of The World’s Billionaires Entirely Self-Made?

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Last month, after Forbes named Kylie Jenner the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, we unintentionally set off a heated debate on social media about the meaning of the word “self-made.”

The idea that a 21-year-old who grew up on a reality TV show (Keeping Up With the Kardashians), whose sister is Kim Kardashian, and whose rich and famous parents are Kris and Caitlyn Jenner could be considered self-made, sparked a very public backlash.

The debate was renewed once again on March 31 after the New York Times published a story in which Kylie admitted to having some help building her business. “I can’t say I’ve done it by myself,” the beauty mogul told the Times. “If they’re just talking finances, technically, yes, I don’t have any inherited money. But I have had a lot of help and a huge platform.”

READ MORE | At 21, Kylie Jenner Becomes The Youngest Self-Made Billionaire Ever

Well, yes, that’s exactly what we mean at Forbes when we say that Kylie—and 1,449 other billionaires—are “self-made.” And that’s perhaps the nub of the disagreement. At Forbes we’ve been using the term to describe the origin of someone’s fortune, rather than whether a billionaire got help to build a hugely successful company or not.

 Forbeshas been tracking the fortunes of America’s richest for more than 35 years and we’ve used three classifications for how people made their fortunes: self-made, inherited and inherited and growing; the latter category was reserved for people like Donald Trump, who built on his father’s real estate empire.

 Forbeshas been tracking the fortunes of America’s richest for more than 35 years and we’ve used three classifications for how people made their fortunes: self-made, inherited and inherited and growing; the latter category was reserved for people like Donald Trump, who built on his father’s real estate empire.

What many object to when Forbes calls Kylie self-made is that (1) she had lots of help (from people like her mom, Kris Jenner) building the company that turned her into a billionaire, and (2) she started out rich and famous. Both of those assertions are true. But Mark Zuckerberg, whom Forbes also classifies as self-made, didn’t build Facebook by himself and he started out well-off, though not as rich and not nearly as famous as Kylie. (Zuckerberg’s father is a dentist, his mother a psychologist).

READ MORE | The 10 Most Notable New Billionaires Of 2019

Plus there are seven other Facebook billionaires who, one could argue, rode alongside Zuckerberg in building the massive social network, including cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, Zuckeberg’s former roommate; cofounder Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s former classmate; Sean Parker, the social network’s first president; Jim Breyer and Peter Thiel, its early investors; and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer since 2008, four years after the company was founded. Forbesclassifies all of these billionaires as self-made—none of them inherited their fortunes. None of them built Facebook alone.

Five years ago, Forbes dug deeper into one defining characteristic of billionaires: How far did they climb to make their way to the top? That year, for the first time, we gave each member of The Forbes 400 list of richest Americans a self-made score on a scale from 1 to 10: A 1 means the fortune was completely inherited; a 10 is for a Horatio Alger-esque journey from the depths of poverty. At the most basic level, the scores denote who inherited some or all of their fortune (scores 1 through 5) and those who truly made it on their own (6 through 10).

We have continued to apply this self-made score to all American billionaires (and also now to self-made women). In Kylie’s case, we gave her a 7 out of 10, acknowledging that she had plenty of advantages from the start.

Donald Trump scores a 4 because he inherited a fortune from his father and then expanded it significantly, while the widow of Steve Jobs, Laurene Powell Jobs, gets a 2 because she inherited a fortune and has a role in managing it, having made investments in media (The Atlantic and Ozy Media) and professional sports (she owns a 20% stake the group behind the NBA’s Washington Wizards and NHL’s Washington Capitals).

READ MORE | More Than A Dozen European Billionaires—Linked To BMW, L’Oréal, Bosch—Have Families With Past Nazi Ties

While few billionaires have had the type of social media platform that Kylie Jenner had when she launched her business—with 120 million Instagram followers—(which we actually think further underscores her entrepreneurial savvy, not the help she got), every single self-made billionaire on Forbes’ list has had help building their fortune, be it from other employees at the company they founded, venture capitalists, mentors, friends or parents.

Steve Ballmer, for instance, had the good fortune to be one of Bill Gates’ classmates at Harvard, which led to a job at Microsoft. He eventually replaced Gates as chief executive, a job he held for 15 years. He is now the 19th-richest person in the world.   

Leon Black, whose father was the CEO of United Brands, got a $75,000 life insurance payout after his father died when he was in business school. He later cofounded private equity giant Apollo Global Management, which made him a billionaire. Hedge fund tycoon Chase Coleman is a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New York. Another hedge fund titan, Ken Griffin, started trading in his Harvard dorm room using $265,000, part of which came from his family.

And the nation’s richest real estate developer, Donald Bren, is the son of a real estate investor and Hollywood film producer. Phil Knight, in his autobiography Shoe Dog, spells out how the early days of Nike were a team effort by a core group of incredibly dedicated early employees. Even Oprah Winfrey, who grew up dirt poor and earns a number 10 rank on our self-made score, got help from smart producers and other employees to turn her daytime talk show from an also-ran into a huge hit, as the podcast Making Oprah details.

READ MORE | The World’s Most Generous Billionaires Outside Of The US

So why have people reacted so vehemently to Kylie? Is it that the Kardashians are people everyone loves to hate? Is it that Americans are fed up with the reality TV, social media culture that not only helped make a 21-year-old who posted on Instagram a billionaire but also helped get a president elected? Several people with whom we spoke wondered if it was because she was a woman. Would we have had the same discussions if it was her half-brother Robert who became a billionaire instead of Kylie?

No one will really ever know. But one thing is certain: Kylie Jenner figured out a simple, easy way to turn her family’s fame, her huge Instagram following and her passion for makeup into big, big bucks.

Luisa Kroll; Forbes Staff

Kerry A. Dolan; Forbes Staff

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Billionaires

Jeff Bezos To Give MacKenzie 25% Of His Amazon Stake, Worth Tens Of Billions, In Divorce

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Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, announced on Thursday that he will transfer roughly 4% of the company’s stock to his wife, MacKenzie, most likely by early July. The couple are in the process of finalizing their divorce.

Those shares are worth more than $35 billion as of 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday. That would make MacKenzie the third-richest woman in the world, behind L’Oréal’s Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, who is worth an estimated $52.9 billion, and Walmart’s Alice Walton, who is worth $45 billion. She would rank as the planet’s 26th-richest person, ahead of Nike’s Phil Knight.

Jeff Bezos will remain the world’s richest person, with a net worth above $110 billion, per early Thursday afternoon stock prices. Bill Gates is the world’s second-wealthiest individual, boasting an estimated $99.5 billion fortune.

While still pending, the Bezos divorce settlement will likely be the largest in world history. Other divorces of the ultrarich include Steve and Elaine Wynn (she received an estimated $850 million settlement), as well as Bill and Susan Gross (she received a $1.3 billion settlement).

In a statement posted to his Twitter account, Jeff Bezos said, “In all our work together, MacKenzie’s abilities have been on full display. She has been an extraordinary partner, ally, and mother.”

MacKenzie posted a tweet of her own, saying, “Grateful to have finished the process of dissolving my marriage with Jeff from each other. … Happy to be giving him all my interests in the Washington Post and Blue Origin, and 75% of our Amazon stock plus voting control of my shares to support his continued contributions with the teams of these incredible companies.”

The couple filed a petition for divorce on April 4, and they expect an official decree to be issued in early July, they said in an SEC filing that outlined the transfer of shares. The filing noted that Jeff Bezos will continue to exercise voting control over MacKenzie’s shares, unless she sells them on the open market or gives them to qualifying nonprofits.

If MacKenzie transfers shares, the recipient of the stock must sign a similar agreement granting Jeff Bezos voting control.

The couple announced their divorce in January, following 25 years of marriage. Their separation stirred a tabloid frenzy, as intimate text messages between Bezos and his romantic partner, Lauren Sanchez, a TV anchor, were leaked by the National Enquirer.

Bezos subsequently published an open letter accusing American Media Inc., which owns the National Inquirer, of extortion and blackmail. AMI has denied wrongdoing.

Bezos also hired a team of investigators to determine who accessed his private messages. His consultant Gavin De Becker ultimately accused the Saudi Arabian government of illicitly gaining access to Bezos’ cellphone. Saudi officials have denied that allegation.

-Angel Au-Yeung; Forbes Staff

-Noah Kirsch; Forbes Staff

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The World’s Most Generous Billionaires Outside Of The US

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Last October, Forbes tracked the biggest billionaire philanthropists in the U.S. and ranked their efforts with a new philanthropy score. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, cofounders of the Giving Pledge, led our list with $35.8 billion and $35.1 billion, respectively, in lifetime donations. George Soros was third, with $32 billion.

“No other country really rivals the history and tradition of charitable giving that exists in the U.S., which has supported a strong and vital civic sector over the years” says Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and author of Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count. “The high levels of charitable giving here also have something to do with the more limited role government plays in this country than, say, in Canada or European countries. And, of course, the accumulation of wealth here has meant there are more mega-givers than there are in other countries.”

But change is in the air. Big gifts have begun to be handed out by billionaires outside the U.S. as well, following in the footsteps of their American counterparts. Since 2012, 28 non-American members of the Forbes billionaires list have signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give at least half of their wealth away (in their lifetimes or after they die). Some, including those who didn’t sign the pledge, have already taken action toward their goal of 10-figure giving: six non-U.S. billionaires have committed more than $1 billion to philanthropic entities, Forbesconfirmed.

One Indian billionaire gave away not only money, but also a kidney. Kochouseph Chittilappilly built a fortune in electrical appliances. In 2011, two months after he turned 60, he donated one of his kidneys to a complete stranger, and a year later, he launched a charitable foundation that focuses on health care and education. So far he’s donated $95 million, including a gift of $79 million to his foundation.

A small number of billionaires outside of the U.S. like Azim Premji—who recently told Forbes “To whom much has been given, much should be expected”—have put billions of dollars into charitable foundations and causes in their home countries and across the globe.In mid-March Indian tech tycoon Premji announced that he shifted a $7.5 billion stake in his IT outsourcing company, Wipro, to his charitable foundation. That move brought his lifetime giving to $21 billion, according to his foundation.

The news not only solidified Premji as the fourth most generous philanthropist in the world, but also makes him the biggest philanthropist outside the U.S. Premji has put 81% of his wealth toward charitable giving in his lifetime, more than any other current billionaire in percentage terms. A close second is hedge fund billionaire George Soros, who has donated more than 76% of his wealth to his Open Society Foundations. Former billionaire and philanthropy icon Chuck Feeney has given away almost all of his $7.5 billion fortune, Forbesreported in 2012, and inspired Bill & Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to establish the Giving Pledge.

Two non-U.S. billionaires who have signed the Giving Pledge but not yet hit the billion-dollar giving mark are stepping up their philanthropic efforts. In Australia, Fortescue Metals founderAndrew Forrest and his wife Nicola donated about $600 million to their Minderoo Foundation, which launched its marine research initiative in 2018.

South African billionaire PatriceMotsepe has donated over $500 million to projects in Africa pertaining to health, farming, agrobusiness, infrastructure, and music. Last year, the African Rainbow Minerals founder also pledged to donate $250 million to South African land reform and $100 million to education initiatives.

One billionaire, who appears to be incredibly generous, is not on the list below because of a technical reason. Dietmar Hopp, cofounder of German software company SAP, put over 60% of his SAP stake—currently worth $6.9 billion—into a charitable outlet that has distributed more than $800 million since 1995. Forbes still counts the shares in Hopp’s charitable outlet as part of his net worth because he retains economic control over the shares and they are not irrevocably placed in a foundation.

Here is Forbes’ list of the biggest billionaire philanthropists from outside the US, measured by total dollar amount donated through mid-March 2019:

*Net worths are as of March 25, 2019.

BANGALORE, INDIA APRIL 27: Wipro Chairman Azim Premji during the announcement of Quarter 4 Results at Wipro Headquarters Sarjapur Road on April 27, 2011 in Bangalore, India. (Photo by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint via Getty Images)

Azim Premji
Citizenship: India
Lifetime giving: $21 billion
Net worth: $5 billion

Through his foundation, IT billionaire Premji has prioritized improving the public school system in some of the most underserved parts of India. He established the Azim Premji University in Bangalore in 2010, which plans to expand its student body from a current 1,300 students to 5,000 students, according to the foundation.

Premji himself never graduated from college, dropping out of Stanford in 1966 to take over his family’s cooking oil business after his father died. He shifted into software and expanded the small company into Wipro, which had $8.4 billion in revenue in 2018. Premji serves as chairman.

CHRISTOPHER HOHN
Christopher Hohn, manager and founder of The Children’s Investment Fund Photographer: Andreas Scholz/Bloomberg NewsBLOOMBERG NEWS

Christopher Hohn
Citizenship: United Kingdom
Lifetime giving: $4.5 billion
Current net worth: $3.1 billion

Hedge fund manager Hohn cofounded the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) in 2002 with his then-wife Jamie. Hohn, who had been working at hedge fund firm Perry Capital since 1996, struck out on his own in 2003 to start a London-based hedge fund called the Children’s Investment Fund. Including an undisclosed donation by Perry Capital in 2002, Hohn and Jamie, who divorced in 2014, have given at least $4.5 billion to CIFF, moving assets from the hedge fund into the foundation.

“The original mission in setting up CIFF was to improve the lives of children in developing countries who live in poverty,” says Hohn on CIFF’s website. “This hasn’t changed. I want to solve problems, not make grants.”

Lopez Obrador Meets Mexican Egineering Organizations
Carlos Slim Helu (Photo by Carlos Tischler/Getty Images)GETTY IMAGES

Carlos Slim Helu
Citizenship: Mexico
Lifetime giving: $4.2 billion
Current net worth: $61.4 billion

A telecom tycoon,Slim early on was a critic of the Giving Pledge. “Many of the problems will be solved by business activity and development,” he said in 2011, adding that “Charity doesn’t solve poverty. How much charity has been done in the past years? Trillions of dollars.” Still, he believes in some forms of philanthropy. Since 2006, Slim’s spokesman says, he has donated $4.2 billion to his Carlos Slim Foundation.

He gave $2 billion to his foundation in 2006 and the same amount again in 2010. Most of that money has come from dividends Slim collected from shares he owns in some of Mexico’s largest companies, Forbes reported in 2011. Over the past six years, he’s donated another $160 million to the outfit, which works on improving health conditions and education, among other causes, so people can work to support their families. Helu’s foundation has collaborated with nonprofit organizations, including the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation.

Hong Kong Tycoon Li Ka-shing Retires
Li Ka-shing, former chairman of CK Hutchison and CK Asset (Photo by Zhang Wei/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)VCG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Li Ka-shing
Citizenship: Hong Kong
Lifetime giving: $3.2 billion
Current net worth: $32.5 billion

Since 1980, Li Ka-shing’s foundation has donated billions to education, medical services and research initiatives in 27 countries, including China, where he was born but was forced to flee in 1940 at the age of 12 after Japan invaded Southern China. 

“When I received the Forbes’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, I shared with everyone that my charitable foundation, founded in 1980, is like my third son to me,” he told Forbes in 2017. “I hoped to persuade those who can, in Asia, support causes important to society as a duty in line with supporting our children.”

Hansjoerg Wyss
Hansjoerg WyssCOURTESY OF THE WYSS FOUNDATION

Hansjoerg Wyss
Citizenship: Switzerland
Lifetime giving: $1.9 billion
Current net worth: $5.9 billion

Wyss founded medical device manufacturer Synthes and sold it to Johnson & Johnson in 2012 for $20.2 billion in cash and stock. Wyss is dedicated to protecting the environment not only in his home continent, Europe, but also in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In an op-ed for the New York Times last October, he pledged to donate $1 billion to land and ocean conservation to protect 30% of earth’s surface by 2030. “Every one of us — citizens, philanthropists, business and government leaders — should be troubled by the enormous gap between how little of our natural world is currently protected and how much should be protected,” he wrote.

He’s already put at least $1.9 billion into his foundation since 2001. The foundation has doled out $450 million to preserve land around the planet, and Wyss has additionally given $40 million to the same cause. In 2018, Wyss donated an undisclosed sum to the Trust for Public Land so it could buy and retire oil and gas leases on more than 24,000 acres in Wyoming where he resides.

Stephan Schmidheiny
Stephan SchmidheinyCOURTESY OF PETER SCHUERMANN

Stephan Schmidheiny
Citizenship: Switzerland
Lifetime giving: $1.5 billion
Current net worth: $2.3 billion

Schmidheiny became the president of Swiss Eternit Group, his father’s construction materials company, in 1976 when he was just 29. Since 2003, he has donated about $1.5 billion to charity, mostly in shares of his Latin American industrial assets that he placed in his charitable VIVA Trust.

Schmidheiny—who helped organize the UN’s first conference on environment and development in 1992—has distributed more than $600 million to projects across the world that focus on sustainable development. In 2012 Schmidheiny was convicted  by an Italian court of negligence by Eternit’s Italian affiliate that led to 2,000 asbestos-related deaths. Italy’s Supreme Court overturned the decision in 2014, acquitting Schmidheiny.

Deniz Cam;Forbes Staff

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