PHILANTHROPIST AND AUTHOR
Television news anchor and author Robert MacNeil proudly holds his personal copy of Can’t Take It With You — The Art of Making and Giving Money, by philanthropist and author Lewis Cullman (r.).
“An extraordinary look at the accomplishments of a pioneer in finance. Cullman has approached his role as a philanthropist with vigor and presents a powerful argument for reform among private foundations.”— George Soros
Can’t Take It With You The Art of Making and Giving Money (2004)
Lewis B. Cullman — to quote former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite — “is one of this nation’s major and most generous philanthropists.” Born in 1919 into a prosperous family with distinguished forebears on both sides (he is related to Emma Lazarus, who wrote “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … ,” among many others of note), Cullman was groomed to be part of his family’s already-successful tobacco business.
But Cullman longed to follow his own star, mastering the complexities of a variety of businesses — meteorology and investment banking among them — while learning as much as he could from those around him. With a probing intelligence, he always “did his homework” while harboring an innate belief in and respect for serendipity — when, slowly and then suddenly, he would usher in a new era in U.S. financial history.
In his charming and elegant memoir, Can’t Take It With You: The Art of Making and Giving Money (2004; John Wiley & Sons; 240 pages; $29.99) Lewis Cullman tells of a life of “building value” — by acquiring companies via then-innovative and “seat-of-the-pants” leveraged buyouts, employing hard-nosed business acumen to build assets and influence, and then becoming a champion for giving his wealth away to cultural and educational institutions. The book is not only a history of an explosive time for America’s economy and of how innovative business deals were done, but it reveals the heart and soul of a businessman who always valued people, and the positive effects of involved philanthropy in the health of society.
It was 1964 when Lewis Cullman and a colleague engineered the very first leveraged buyout (LBO). (“We had hit upon what was clearly a novel and successful formula,” he modestly writes in the book.) With $1,000 cash, they bought Orkin Exterminating Company for $62.4 million. From there, he describes a fascinating succession of deals culminating in the purchase of Keith Clark, a desk calendar company, that evolved into At-A-Glance®, the largest manufacturer of calendars and appointment books in the U.S.
Can’t Take It With You offers plenty of tense, frustrating and jubilant war stories as Cullman forges new paths that today are standard operating procedures. Yet the author does offer a “mea culpa” for creating techniques that in later years have been abused. “Corporations aren’t just things,” he writes. “They’re assets and obligations; employees and owners, including shareholders if a company is publicly held.” Then he reveals what for him is a crucial difference: “Strike the basic deal, and you could start assembling the orchestra on stage. My job ultimately was to raise the baton and get them to play together. To me, nothing could have been more fun.”
Can’t Take It With You is more than a history of deal-making — it is also the story of emotional and intellectual growth, tempered by personal setbacks, discoveries and joys. It is ultimately the story of the creation of a dedicated, and involved, philanthropy initiated by Cullman and his wife, Dorothy (now deceased), which to date has awarded nearly $500 million to cultural institutions and educational programs.
“I don’t get the truly super-rich — the ones worth billions of dollars — who insist on holding on to most of what they have,” he writes. “Why? What can you possibly do with $15 billion that you couldn’t do with $1 billion? … And I really don’t get the tax laws that allow the wealthy to deduct the money they give to create private foundations yet never require those foundations to pay out the principal that earned the deduction. … To me that’s just nuts: bad tax policy, bad social policy, and morally indefensible in the bargain.”
Near the book’s end, Cullman lays down a challenge: “Too many private foundations sit on far too much sterile money, and that pile is just going to grow in the years ahead.… Foundations should be required to spend down their assets, all of them, within 50 years of their founding.”
In conclusion, the author writes, “Our giving hasn’t been an exercise in self-denial or doing without. We have everything we could want. To us, giving has always been a pleasure, a chance to do some good with the success of my business career. For the opportunities that have made this all possible, for the people who have helped me out along the way, for the times I’ve lived through, I remain deeply thankful; but I’m also enthusiastically curious about the future. After all, every phase of my life has brought something new and exciting. Who knows what the next decade might hold.”