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#171 : Chuck Feeney (The Billionaire Who Wasn't)
March 15th, 2021 | E171

What I learned from reading The Billionaire Who Wasn't: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune by Conor O'Clery.


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He celebrated having divested himself personally of the vast wealth with which fate and his genius for making money had burdened him. [0:01] 

Feeney was already showing a trait that would assert itself throughout his life: thinking big and aiming to achieve the best result, even if it seemed unattainable. [3:27]

I all of a sudden realized, shit, you can sell this to anybody, anywhere. [12:45] 

Feeney believed that there could be more lucrative opportunities in the less  crowded Pacific. [21:53] 

Chuck lived out of his briefcase. Everything was connected with business. We did a lot of screwy things. I became part of what he called his ‘teen  age frontier’ approach to business, because he surrounded himself with smart college youngsters, mostly single and aggressive ‘conquerors of the world.’ I was the oldest, always the damper, saying to him, "Are you out of your mind?" [25:44]

We hadn’t spent any time on corporate structuring or anything like that, we were just simply busy selling cars, duty — free liquor, making the cash, putting the cash in the bank, cash in, and cash out. [28:06]

They were on the verge of going bankrupt, perhaps already were. Feeney and Miller were almost back where they started. They could perhaps boost the cash flow from the duty   free shops in Hong Kong and Hawaii to clear off the debts. Feeney had moments of despair. “Of course. It goes with the territory. But there wasn’t much we could do. It was something we had started, and we thought we were going to make a million dollars out of it. We had no choice but to salvage the company or go over the cliff.” [31:21] 

The duty   free shops began to make substantial profits, the owners agreed to take 90 percent of the dividends in cash, a practice that would continue for a quarter of a century. [44:54] 

Paradoxically, while Feeney became more frugal, he was pushing himself ever harder to build up the business that was making him even richer. [48:26] 

He brings a focus on business that I hadn’t experienced before. If something doesn’t work, he has four or so different thoughts. He has a multifaceted way of looking at business. He is detail oriented in his approach. [48:51] 

His definition of success was not having all the money one desired, but being able to raise a happy, healthy family. “There has to be a balance in life. A balance of business, family, and the opportunity to learn and teach." [49:41] 

They were offering to pay the State of Hawaii some $2 million every three days, for the next five years, just for the right to run a couple of stores. [58:38] 

What only the four owners knew was that during that period (1978–1988), they had received cash dividends of $867 million, of which Chuck Feeney had got $334 million. [1:00:53] 

A new divorce settlement was reached that gave Danielle an additional $60 million. Feeney insisted that Danielle get all the family homes, in Paris, London, the south of France, Connecticut, Hawaii, and New York. He took nothing himself from the family property. [1:03:33] 

Nobody ever put a penny in the business. We took out $ 8 billion or whatever it was. Nobody is that smart. You have just got to have a lot of things going your way. [1:07:56] 


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