Magnate gives boost to university pride Officials see gift as endorsement from shrewd investor

October 02, 1995|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

A steely eyed media magnate who could issue bonds in bravado, Michael R. Bloomberg would have you believe that he is a romantic when it comes to the Johns Hopkins University.

Maybe so.

But Hopkins officials note Mr. Bloomberg's famed financial acumen with glee, and say his promise of $55 million marks his judgment that the university is a winning investment.

Mr. Bloomberg, a 1964 Hopkins graduate who will become the school's trustee chairman in July, plunges only into ventures he gauges will be successful. He made millions as a financier, and subsequently hit the jackpot when he repackaged financial information in computer terminals that dot brokerage houses across the nation.

As chairman of the five-year, $900 million Johns Hopkins Initiative fund-raising drive, scheduled for completion in February 2000, Mr. Bloomberg has been involved from the outset, plotting strategy and buttonholing potential donors, large and small, for gifts.

Through such dedication to detail, he has built from scratch a fortune estimated at more than $1 billion. Yet people at Hopkins said the pace of his business career, and his often blunt style, have not deprived him of appreciation for other aspects of life.

In 1984, Mr. Bloomberg endowed a professorship at Hopkins in the humanities, held by Herbert L. Kessler, who now also is chairman of the art history department. Dr. Kessler said it was telling that the financier did not spend his money on engineering -- Mr. Bloomberg's area of study -- but picked the arts, in honor of his mother's 75th birthday.

"Since I was awarded that chair, he's monitored it and kept track of my publications," Dr. Kessler said. "It's not just a casual gift and he moves on. He actually looks into these things." Mr. Bloomberg has promised to be an active trustee chairman. He already is a member of the boards of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Spence School in New York and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, among others.

"There's magnificent integrity and a real tenderness," said Morris W. Offit, current chairman of the Hopkins board.

The two men met in 1969 when both worked for the Salomon Bros. investment firm. "Michael is truly a caring person, and that isn't always evident because of his freshness."

Given $20 million in 1981 when he was forced out at Salomon Bros., Mr. Bloomberg married Wall Street and Madison Avenue sensibilities, marketing up-to-the-minute financial information to traders through his Bloomberg Financial Markets.

Eventually, he created the Bloomberg News Service, whose square white boxes are relied upon by newspapers and market traders throughout the country.

In the past 15 years, he has become one of the most influential figures in American financial journalism. "Engineers are basically at heart entrepreneurs. They are inventors," said Willis Gore, a Hopkins electrical engineering professor who gave Mr. Bloomberg an "A" -- one of seven in a 48-student class -- in fall 1963.

The terminals combine computer graphics with television-style news briefs and can call up deep banks of data on markets or companies at the touch of a few buttons -- brightly packaged in color. It is a truly multimedia product.

Baltimore traders said they pay about $1,500 per month per terminal -- and when that figure is multiplied by the at least 45,000 paying subscribers, it's evident how explosively the value of Mr. Bloomberg's young empire has grown.

In the past few years, he also has purchased a 24-hour radio station and now co-produces a 15-minute nightly business news show with Maryland Public Television.

Born on Valentine's Day 1942 in Boston, Mr. Bloomberg was the son of an accountant at a small dairy in Somerville, Mass. As a Hopkins engineering student in the early 1960s, he said he encountered "the first exposure I ever had to real scholarship and people that cared outside my family, I guess."

Fresh out of Harvard Business School in 1966, Mr. Bloomberg had taken a job as a trading-room clerk, and like some bootstrap protagonist of a Horatio Alger story, arrived early and stayed late to talk shop with the firm's legendary leader William Salomon and his number two, John Gutfreund.

Now divorced and the father of two children, Mr. Bloomberg remains quiet about much of his personal life. About his professional career, however, he is not widely known for humility.

As several observers have suggested, it is not by accident that each machine on which his company provides financial information is called "the Bloomberg."

"He has some of the Wall Street swagger and brashness that many people find very appealing," said Mr. Offit, the chairman and CEO of the Offit Private Bank & Trust Co. "But he's a very profound guy. Wall Streeters aren't supposed to be that profound, especially ones who come from the trade culture. Here is a guy who has such depth."

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