His third act

After successful careers in politics and business, David Rubenstein's newest venture is charitable giving

June 13, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

By his own calculations, David Rubenstein, the Baltimore-born businessman and philanthropist, has just a couple of short decades left to make his mark on the planet.

"I'm 60 now," Rubenstein says." "I'm running out of time. The average white man my age can expect to live to age 81, and before I die, I'd like to make an impact on the world. I'd like to have been truly transformative in at least one area."

The sense of urgency is striking, if somewhat puzzling.

Rubenstein is the son of a postal carrier and homemaker who grew up in a blue-collar enclave in Northwest Baltimore. He has, by most yardsticks, achieved on a grand scale. Just three years out of law school, he was helping to crafting domestic policy for the nation. Ten years after that, he co-founded a company that in short order made him a billionaire.

Now — and with the trademark intensity that made him a success in other spheres — Rubenstein is turning his focus toward philanthropy.

In the past month alone, Rubenstein became chairman of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and donated $5 million to the National Book Festival.

Between 2007 and 2008, he purchased three rare historic documents — the jewel of which is the last remaining Magna Carta copy in private hands, which he bought for $21.3 million — and either gave or loaned them all to federal agencies.

Most people would be satisfied with what Rubenstein has accomplished in just one of his spheres, but he remains restless.

"I'm Jewish," he says. "I can never be completely happy."

It's hard to tell whether or not he's joking.

The obvious question about Rubenstein isn't why he hasn't done more but how he manages to fit it all in. A large stone outside Rubenstein's summer home in Nantucket displays these painted words: "I'd rather be working — David."

He sits on the boards of directors of about 30 nonprofit organizations, a staggering number for a man who is not only running a private equity firm with $90 billion in assets, but who also has a family life. (He has been married for 27 years and is the father of three grown children.)

But Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center president, says that Rubenstein is no mere figurehead. He is, in fact, amazingly ubiquitous.

"David never makes a commitment he's not going to keep," Kaiser says.

"He never misses a board meeting or a committee meeting, and he attends most performances. That would be sort of astonishing even if he weren't working with all those other organizations. If I send him an e-mail, and within five minutes, I'll get a response."

Add to this Rubenstein's reading habits — he consumes eight newspapers a day and six books a week — and it's tempting to speculate that he must have come up with a supernatural means of stretching time.

His associates attribute his productivity to his extraodinary focus and discipline. Conversations with Rubenstein seem to take less time than do conversations with other people. His mind moves so quickly that his discussion partner can skip the boring background explanations and cut to the chase.

Reynold Levy, president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, observes wryly:

"I've actually heard David say, 'Good morning,' but he's not a guy for idle chatter. Once you know David, you can have a three-minute conversation with him and reach a decision, whereas with someone else the same conversation might take 30 minutes."

(Rubenstein is vice chairman of the Lincoln Center board of directors, but he says he plans to surrender that post soon to avoid a potential conflict of interest.)

It's easy enough to document Rubenstein's ferocious work ethic, but much more difficult to pinpoint its source.

"From early on, I've been pretty driven," he says with characteristic understatement.

His determined pursuit of knowledge began when he was 6 years old and made weekly visits to the Enoch Pratt Free Library with his mother.

"At that time, you had to be in the first grade to get a library card," he says, "and then you were allowed to check out up to 12 books each week. I'd check out all 12, finish them up, go back and check out 12 more."

Rubenstein takes pains not to describe his childhood as disadvantaged, and instead points to adversity's potential for building character. But he concedes:

"I come from a modest background, and I knew that if I wanted to get anywhere in life, I'd have to do it on my own."

He selected his college (Duke University, Class of 1970) and law school (University of Chicago, Class of 1973) on the basis of which institutions offered the most generous scholarships.

Rubenstein always has enjoyed the company of very bright people, whom he finds energizing. He's drawn to society's movers and shakers because they achieve results. And at a very early age — 11, to be precise — he responded to then-President John F. Kennedy's inaugural call to citizens to dedicate themselves to the national good.

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