Billionaires follow lead of former private-sector meteorologist

This past week, a small group of the world’s billionaires made history by pledging to give more than half their fortune to charitable causes, either during their lifetimes, or upon their deaths (see, for example, the Giving Pledge). The world took heart at this expression of generosity and took note as well of the timing, as nations and people attempt to recover from the global financial sector downturn of 2008. The news made quite a splash!

But here’s a bit of background that many may not know. These billionaires (whether wittingly or not) were following the example and the advice of a former private sector meteorologist – Lewis B. Cullman. You can find the full story in his autobiography, “Can’t Take it With You: the Art of Making and Giving Money.”[1] Every meteorologist would enjoy and profit from reading this book, but here are just a few snippets to pique your interest.

Lewis Cullman was born in 1919. As he tells it, when he was only six or seven years old, his parents asked him what he wanted for Christmas, and he told them he wanted a subscription to the New York City Daily Weather Map. Years later, as a government major at Yale in the class of 1941, he wrote his senior thesis on the U.S. Weather Bureau. His father wanted him to go into the family business, but World War II intervened. Cullman seized the opportunity to join the Navy and become a meteorologist. At war’s end, he founded Weather Advisors, Inc. (later letting a partner buy him out and then founding a competing Cullman Weather Service), providing weather services to towns and cities in New England. He struggled at this, largely because, in his view, the Weather Bureau was “using tax dollars to restrain competition.” (This will sound familiar to some ears.) He arranged to testify to Congress along these lines, in the context of the 1948 federal budget appropriation, but on the eve of his hearing, some colleagues, after meeting with Francis Reichelderfer, then head of the Weather Bureau, convinced him to soft-pedal his testimony.

Not long afterward, still frustrated, he left private-sector meteorology, to go into business, where he enjoyed spectacular success. In 1964, he and a colleague in essence invented the leveraged buyout, purchasing Orkin Exterminating Company, then worth some $60M, for only $1000 of his own money. He never looked back, putting together a series of deals culminating with the purchase of a desk calendar company that he built into the well-known At-A-Glance brand, which he eventually sold for something in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars. Since the sale, he and his wife Dorothy focused on philanthropy. Over the past decade, they have donated more than a quarter-billion dollars to causes ranging from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, to the Chess-in-the-Schools program, to scientific research, and much more.

Every aspect of Cullman’s life – the anecdotes and details of his meteorological career, both in the wartime Navy and subsequently; the financial highlights; and his philosophy of giving – makes absolutely fascinating reading. But it’s this latter aspect, his philosophy of giving, which is most relevant here. In his book, his other writings, and his every conversation, he stresses giving the accumulated wealth itself, not just some of the income from that wealth; giving while still alive; and active involvement in the benevolent activities. These are the same attributes the billionaires, some of them his acquaintances, have emphasized this past week. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any reference to Cullman in the news accounts. By the time of this recent initiative he and Dorothy had already given away much of their wealth. And, as they say, success has many parents. But by his writing, and most importantly his modeling behavior, Lewis Cullman has contributed in at least a small way, and maybe a big one, to this historic development. He has the right to be especially content following this week’s events. He and Dorothy know that not only have they used their good fortune to help others, but they may have succeeded in handsomely leveraging their philanthropy.

Well done, Lewis Cullman! Here’s to you! May the wind always be at your back.


[1] John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004

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