April 20, 2024

DealBook: Philanthropy Given Focus by Brain Cancer

Theodore Forstmann has been dating  Padma Lakshmi, the host of the reality television cooking show “Top Chef.”Hiroko Masuike for The New York TimesTheodore Forstmann has been dating Padma Lakshmi, the host of the reality television cooking show “Top Chef.”

Theodore J. Forstmann is tired.

Sitting on a couch last week in his office on the 45th floor of the General Motors building, he apologized for his lack of energy.

“Thinking and talking and responding is so tiring, I can’t tell you,” he said.

Mr. Forstmann — the billionaire financier who helped create the leveraged buyout industry in the 1970s and who coined the phrase “Barbarians at the Gate” — has brain cancer. After the removal of a tumor last month, he is now undergoing radiation therapy and taking a cocktail of steroids and other prescription drugs.

When I went to visit him, he was particularly drained, a function of the treatment as much as the cancer itself.

“You feel kind of a little bit like a guinea pig,” he said. “What you have to understand is that what they’re doing to you is ultimately the only thing they can do to save you, but the unintended bad consequences along the way are what you actually have to fight against. It’s very strange mentally.” He added: “The steroids kind of take over for your normal emotions so right now I could be crying, I could be laughing, I could be fighting.”

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He doesn’t know how much time he has to live — the doctors “don’t really tell you the truth about anything,” he lamented. But he is in the office because he says he still has work to do.

“This is not how I want to end,” Mr. Forstmann said. “It’s a bend in the road for me. It’s kind of arrogant to put it that way, but that’s the way I want it to be.”

Leaning back as he tried to get comfortable, he said he did not want his obituary to read, “He did this, he did that, and he died of brain cancer. No way.”

Actually, between the words “no” and “way,” an expletive punctuated his point. But then he remembered this is a family newspaper.

At 71, Mr. Forstmann is on a mission. He wants to complete one last corporate turnaround as the grand finale of his storied career. It’s already an extensive list. There was Gulfstream Aerospace, Dr Pepper and General Instrument. He famously railed against his peers’ use of junk bonds, deriding them as “wampum.”

His other exploits are almost as legendary. Over the years, he has been linked in the gossip pages to Elizabeth Hurley, Diana, Princess of Wales, and he is now dating Padma Lakshmi, the host of the reality cooking show “Top Chef.”

Mr. Forstmann is now focused on the transformation of the talent agency IMG, which he bought in 2004 for $750 million and which represents the likes of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. He considers it unfinished business.

“What I want to do is build IMG,” he said, “and I’d like to do it quicker than I was going to.”

He says he is in a rush for a reason: “I want to make a bunch of money now, stick it in a charitable trust and give it away.”

Mr. Forstmann, who has long eschewed the traditional Manhattan charity circuit, has for years been a quiet donor to children’s groups throughout Africa, and the world. He adopted two young boys from South Africa over a decade ago after being invited there to speak by Nelson Mandela. One of his adopted sons now works at his firm, Forstmann Little Company.

When I asked him why he took an interest in African children, he looked at me with a blank stare as if the question was ridiculous. “They’re helpless,” he said.

Last year, at the request of his friend Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, Mr. Forstmann attended a dinner for billionaires hosted by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. He agreed to sign “the Giving Pledge” — a vow to give away more than 50 percent of his wealth to philanthropy. But after the dinner, he said he told Mr. Bloomberg, “Mike, I already do this. I don’t need any formal pledge.” (He made the pledge anyway.)

Mr. Forstmann said he acquired IMG to “make a bunch of money, get it out of this thing and spend it on kids in the world. That was the reason.”

He says he is still haunted by articles that said he acquired IMG to simply fraternize “with the golfers or the models or whatever it is.” When he bought the company, he was also roundly criticized for overpaying for the trophy business, a point he now says was true.

“I hugely overpaid for it,” he said. “It was a piece of” — yes, he used an expletive there, too.

But over the last six years, he has transformed the company from a traditional talent agency to a global media entertainment and licensing business. IMG, which was barely break-even when he bought it, made $110 million last year, is expected to earn $140 million in 2011 and $200 million within the next two years.

After realizing that the talent business was “unscalable,” he decided to move the firm into other, more profitable businesses and into fast-growing countries.

IMG is now the dominant licensing company for colleges, propelled by a series of acquisitions — Host Communications and the Collegiate Licensing Company, both licensing companies; and, most recently, ISP Sports, a marketing firm. He formed an exclusive joint venture with CCTV, the national television network of China, to create sports programming.

In India, IMG helped develop the Indian Premier Cricket League through a joint venture with Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries, and it owns rights to two soccer leagues and a basketball league. He has formed a joint venture in Brazil with Eike Batista, the chairman of the conglomerate EBX.

Although the partnerships are still in their infancies, Mr. Forstmann is hoping they prove valuable.

“My stake is probably worth a couple hundred million,” if sold today, he said, although he doesn’t seem ready to do that just yet.

As he reflected on his career and on modern Wall Street, he seemed befuddled.

“I don’t recognize it. They’re all a bunch of traders. Instead of trading thousands they’re trading trillions,” he said. “There are no more John Whiteheads or anything like that,” referring to the former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs.

Mr. Forstmann has always been outspoken about the financial industry, but this time he went a little further. “It is a pretty greed-driven business, the whole thing,” he said.

While he is proud of the life he has lived — and hopes to conquer the cancer and live many more years — he is not so enamored of the industry he pioneered, he says.

“I’m not very proud of how it’s turned out.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=95525ecafd532701522b0703f25ba519

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