Fortune in futures fuels pursuits of a bay patron

Philanthropist Keith Campbell's devotion to the Chesapeake is `total immersion'

January 02, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

The lights are always on at Campbell and Co.'s offices in Towson. Across time zones in a dozen countries, its traders are betting on the world's financial markets, millions of dollars at a time.

Those transactions have made Keith Campbell a rich man. Now they are helping to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Since 1998, when he started the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, the 64-year-old investment manager has given away more than $20 million - much of it to fund the bay cleanup. His foundation is one of the few in the nation that gives almost exclusively to environmental causes and is one of the largest private funders focused on local waterways.

Campbell's money helped the Chesapeake Bay Foundation fight a developer's plan to build a 2,700-home resort community near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and press for the "flush tax" to upgrade sewage treatment plants. It was a force behind the Environmental Integrity Project's air pollution studies, which helped propel Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to sign a law forcing Maryland power plants to reduce pollution. And it has established riverkeepers to patrol the region's waterways.

Campbell puts a portion of his compensation into the foundation, which gives away about 6 percent of its endowment each year. When he started, that was about $170,000. This year, the foundation gave away about $6.5 million. Next year, Campbell estimates, it will give away about $7 million out of foundation assets of $160 million.

"Once you have resolved your estate and family issues, it seems to me that you should do something better with your money than leaving an ever larger pile," Campbell said. "And my answer to that was, clearly, without hesitation, to clean up the Chesapeake Bay."

Those who have received money from Campbell say he's a different kind of philanthropist. He does his own research, rarely seeks attention and has been known to call grant winners himself to tell them money is on the way.

Campbell, who builds boats and surfs in his spare time, is easygoing and energetic, an all-around nice guy. But he knows how to say no when he thinks a well-intended project won't make a difference. He's not afraid to fund litigation because, he says, regulators often do not enforce laws to protect waterways unless forced by the courts. And he's as excited about research to turn poultry litter into energy as he is conventional projects such as oyster restoration.

Aside from the Patricia Campbell, a 65-foot oyster boat that he donated to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in honor of his wife, Campbell has declined to stamp his name on a building or cause. Instead, he steers attention to those improving water quality or restoring bay grasses and oysters - what he calls the "lungs and the liver" of the bay.

Campbell said he spends at least 50 percent of his time on foundation work. But he thinks about the bay's precarious health all the time. Routine meetings with grantees can take up to five hours because Campbell asks so many hard questions. He'll want to know about the potential for wind energy, or how to better make land-use decisions, or how to persuade more people to put fewer chemicals on their lawn.

"He's not someone hired as the expert. He's the deep pocket, and for him to come in with that interest and energy, yeah, that's unusual," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based advocacy group that has used Campbell's grants for air and agriculture pollution research. "He doesn't like to waste time. When you sit down with him, you need to be on your toes."

Forty years ago, Campbell did not appear to be on a path to Chesapeake Bay philanthropy. A native of Long Island, he and his family moved to Towson when he was 16 after his father took a job as manager of WMAR-TV.

What sealed the deal for the elder Campbell's move was a fishing trip along the Chesapeake. The family had long loved the water, having fished and crabbed at Campbell's grandmother's home in Rhode Island.

Campbell graduated from Towson High School, worked as a lifeguard in Ocean City and then went to the University of North Carolina. But he dropped out after three semesters and moved to California to ski and surf.

He was selling advertising when his roommate introduced him to the art of futures trading - betting on whether markets would go up or down, then using that money to make more. In 1971, he pulled together $60,000 to start his first futures fund.

Two years later, his family connection and water lured him back to Baltimore.

Like his father, Campbell was drawn to the bay's recreational opportunities. When he met with prospective employees from New York or London, Campbell showed them the Inner Harbor and the Annapolis waterfront. Now, 140 people work for Campbell and Co., making it one of the world's largest hedge funds, with a portfolio that includes energy, foreign currencies and interest rates.

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