Hardly Strictly Business

Cal Alum Warren Hellman Plays His Own Tune in Investing, Philanthropy.

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Investment Successes
That’s still true today, even though Hellman stepped down as chairman last year. He remains on the firm’s investment committee and still comes in the office every day, focusing on mentoring the younger partners.


Since its inception, Hellman & Friedman has invested in about 70 companies. The firm’s current pool of 22 investments includes Getty Images, the Nielsen Company, and several financial services and software companies. The company’s conference rooms are named after its most successful investments; its one real flop, a paging company from the 1990s, has its name on a stall in the men’s bathroom.


The successes include advertising firm Young & Rubicam and Internet advertiser DoubleClick. Both reflect another principle of Hellman’s investment philosophy: Invest in companies with strong cash flow but without huge capital expenditures and significant debt.


“There were very, very good people running Young & Rubicam. They were fretting because the founders still had most of the ownership, and the people running the company had little,” Hellman recalls. “So we bought out the founders, and we invested a lot of equity in the hands of the people who would be running the company for the next five years.” The company then went public and was eventually acquired by an even larger advertising firm.


DoubleClick, meanwhile, was acquired by Google for $3.1 billion in 2008. But Hellman’s favorite story about the company involves his Torah study group. He recalls how he invited former DoubleClick CEO David Rosenblatt’s mother to teach his Torah class and she went on to offend one of the “very humorless” rabbis with her feminist interpretation of biblical stories.


Rosenblatt was amazed when the Torah class was the only thing Hellman talked about in a Bloomberg news article on the DoubleClick sale.


“I can’t emphasize how unusual and unconventional that is. He really has from my experience an extraordinary ability to connect with people and think about them in a multidimensional way,” says Rosenblatt. “It’s incredibly refreshing.”


Man of Many Interests
That may be because Hellman is so multi-faceted himself. Once an avid skier and marathon runner, Hellman still heads to his Marin County ranch to ride horses and has competed in the grueling 100-mile Tevis horseback ride in the Sierras. Head to Lake Tahoe and you’ll find Hellman’s Run on the slopes of Sugar Bowl ski resort, of which Hellman became a principle stockholder after a restructuring in 1998.


Hellman is also a big supporter of the San Francisco Foundation, which funds such causes as park cleanups and housing for the poor and the San Francisco Free Clinic, which serves indigent people and was founded by Hellman’s doctor daughter, Patricia Hellman Gibbs.


The Bay Citizen, launched earlier this year, is Hellman’s newest philanthropic and entrepreneurial endeavor. Hellman says the dearth of local news amid layoffs at the San Francisco Chronicle—and the consequences on local politics—led him to think of starting a local newspaper as a nonprofit. With Hellman’s $5 million, the idea evolved into an online news hub that has partnered with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the New York Times, which publishes Bay Citizen articles twice a week in a Bay Area section.


But Hellman’s contributions to UC extend far beyond The Bay Citizen. In 2004, he joined three partners to endow Cal’s aquatics program, including water polo, of course. In 1994, Hellman and his family gave a $5 million gift to create the Hellman Fellows Program, which has supported the research of more than 200 junior faculty. Hellman has been a member of the Haas Board, which advises the dean, since 1987 and the UC Commission on the Future since its formation last year to advise the UC system as state support falls.


Bluegrass Benefactor
But the philanthropy that Hellman is probably best known for in the Bay Area is the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which he has been bankrolling for 10 years. When he first started the festival with 12 bands and 13,000 people at Golden Gate Park, Hellman never expected it to balloon into a three-day event that attracts 750,000 people to hear 80 bands, including Hellman’s, The Wronglers.


As always, however, Hellman downplays his generosity. “What people don’t realize is that this is so damn selfish,” Hellman said of the festival when he received the Lifetime of Achievement in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Award from Haas’ Lester Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 2006. “People keep saying thank you, thank you, and that’s nice, but I feel like I ought to be saying thank you, thank you, for liking this music and for coming.”


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