Chuck Feeney, businessman who gave away $8B fortune, dies at 92

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By Dan Sears

Charles “Chuck” Feeney, the co-founder of duty-free shops who gave away nearly his entire $8 billion fortune, died at his rented San Francisco apartment. He was 92.

Feeney’s death was announced Monday by Atlantic Philanthropies, a group of charitable foundations he launched in 1982 for his philanthropic efforts.

Atlantic Philanthropies “made grants totaling more than $8 billion…to causes on five continents” on behalf of Feeney, though much of it was done anonymously, said the organization, which was wound up in 2016 after Feeney made a $7 million donation to his alma mater, Cornell University, according to The New York Times.

The New Jersey-born Feeney said he retained about $2 million for himself and his five adult children, The Times reported.

The seven-figure sum was a mere fraction of the billions he made through Duty Free Shoppers, the ultra-successful chain of airport stores he founded in 1960 with his former Ivy League classmate Robert Miller.

Charles “Chuck” Feeney passed away on Monday at age 92. (Feeney pictured in October 1985 at the World Series game. At the time, Feeney was the President of the American League of Professional Baseball.)
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Feeney and Miller sold the company to luxury goods conglomerate LVMH in 1997 for $2.47 billion.

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After the sale, he spent much of his professional life giving out funds to museums, universities, medical organizations, and human rights groups — though he went to great lengths to conceal his identity.

Since 2011, Feeney was a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates’ Giving Pledge — a group of billionaires including Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, and Larry Ellison who pledged to donate most of their fortune before their deaths.

Though his name appeared on the Giving Pledge list, Feeney’s name was nowhere to be found on the 1,000 buildings across five continents he collectively gave $2.7 billion to fund, according to The Times.

Feeney’s donations in Ireland — where his ancestors are from — are thought to have been around $2 billion. In Northern Ireland, the so-called James Bond of philanthropy donated to the Republican Sinn Fein party, and to their rival, loyalist paramilitary group Ulster Defence Association.

Feeney (right) retained just $2 million for him and his five children. He donated the rest of his fortune, which surpassed $8 billion.
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Feeney initially made his fortune from Duty Free Shoppers, an airport chain he started with his college friend Robert Miller. The duo sold the chain to LVMH for $2.47 billion in 1997.
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He also handed out vast amounts of cash to institutions and individuals via cashier’s check to conceal the source. Atlantic Philanthropies were incorporated in Bermuda so his donations weren’t revealed, as they would have to be for US tax requirements.

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“Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model, and the ultimate example of giving while living,” Gates told Forbes in 2012. At one time, the news site said Feeney was the 24th richest person in America.

Feeney is survived by his wife, Helga Flaiz, and five children, as well as 16 grandchildren.

The former billionaire was married twice in his life.

He and his first wife, Danielle Morali-Daninos — a French citizen — wed in 1959 in Paris. The two had five children together before their marriage ended in divorce in the ’90s.

Feeney gave all seven of his homes and a large financial settlement to Morali-Daninos, according to The Times.

In 1995, he tied the knot with German-born Flaiz, his longtime assistant.

Feeney (pictured in NY in 2007) was considered Cornell University’s “third founder” as he was “Cornell University’s most generous donor.”
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Feeney’s professional life was a stark contrast from his early years living in Elizabeth, NJ. He was born to a working-class Irish-American family during the Great Depression, and his parents struggled to pay their $32-per-month mortgage.

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Feeney went on to serve in the Air Force, where he was stationed in Japan.

He then went to Cornell University for hotel management, making him the first person in his family to get a college degree.

A tribute to Feeney on Cornell’s website calls him the “third founder” as “Cornell University’s most generous donor.”

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