David Rockefeller

David Rockefeller at 100: A life of service and philanthropy

David Rockefeller’s belief that individuals and nations with great wealth and power have a moral obligation to improve the world and the lives of people was honed by the example of his grandfather and father, his mentors in graduate school, his war experience, his international travels and his work experience at Chase National Bank. And this belief is exemplified not only in his extensive philanthropy but also in his decision to contribute 1000 acres around Little Long Pond on Mount Desert Island in honor of his 100th birthday.

In his book “Memoirs,” Rockefeller credits his father with instilling in each of his children the understanding that they are obliged to give, to work toward improving the lives of others and to caring for and protecting the natural world. “Father, drawing on Grandfather’s earlier actions, established a powerful example for all members of the Rockefeller family, including me. In addition to donating most of his personal fortune to charity, he also demonstrated that philanthropy – the ‘third sector’ – could play a seminal role in helping society find solutions to its most pervasive and persistent problems and serve as a valuable bridge between the private and public sectors. In my opinion, that is his most important legacy,” wrote Rockefeller.

The lesson of giving started early. David’s father, John D. Rockefeller Jr.(JDR), talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan at prayer sessions before breakfast. JDR also stipulated that excess income from the trusts he established in 1934 for each of his children should be given to charity, not reinvested.

David Rockefeller graduated from the Lincoln School in New York City in 1932 and earned a bachelors degree from Harvard in 1936. He began graduate studies in economics at Harvard in fall 1936 and then spent the following year at the London School of Economics. His last two years were at the University of Chicago – a university his grandfather, John D., founded and sustained for many years. While he had begun to learn of the importance of philanthropy and the role of private individuals in taking on public projects from his father and grandfather, his professors at Chicago also played a pivotal role. His professor Frank Knight wrote “Risk, Uncertainty and Profit.” Knight insisted “that ethical considerations had to be incorporated in the process of economic analysis.” The notion of businesses, corporations and governments having a moral responsibility to address society’s problems became a central part of Rockefeller’s legacy and defined him as a person and philanthropist.

“Like many in my generation, I returned from World War II believing a new international architecture had to be erected and that the United States had a moral obligation to provide leadership to the effort. I was determined to play a role in that process, and I found the Council on Foreign Relations in New York the best place to pursue my interest in global affairs.”

Work at Chase

A portrait of David Rockefeller shortly after stepping down as chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank. FILE PHOTO

A portrait of David Rockefeller shortly after stepping down as chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank.

After returning from Europe as a captain in the Army’s intelligence service, Rockefeller accepted the offer of his maternal uncle, Winthrop Aldrich, to join Chase National Bank. Although Aldrich was not trained as a banker, Chase prospered during his 20-year presidency. But in Rockefeller’s view, while his uncle emerged as “a prominent spokesman for the American banking industry, the day-to-day operations were left to individual senior officers.” The lack of structure and organization were problems Rockefeller attempted to resolve. After 23 years at the bank – years in which the bank, through Rockefeller’s initiatives, expanded its international presence – Rockefeller, along with George Champion, took over as co-CEOs in March 1969.

Rockefeller felt strongly that corporations like Chase had a responsibility to address social issues. In terms of urban crises, “what we faced as businessmen was not a single problem. ‘Rather, it is a kind of witches’ brew blended from all the major ills of our country – inadequate educational systems, hard-core unemployment, hazardous pollution of natural resources, antiquated transportation, shameful housing, insufficient and ineffective public facilities, lack of equal opportunity for all, and a highly dangerous failure of communication between old and young, black and white. All of these are problems that cry out for immediate action.’”

Although Rockefeller made some progress in addressing those issues, it was not until he became the sole CEO in 1975 that he was able to take on the lack of a corporate structure and organizational plan as well as the bank’s social responsibility. At the time, the bank faced serious financial problems because of what he called “burgeoning real estate problems” and a recession. He and Bill Butcher, Chase’s COO, developed a three-year plan to accurately and impartially address the problems. That plan would ultimately restore both lost revenue and the board’s confidence in Rockefeller.

Shortly after the board meeting, Rockefeller came to Maine with his wife, Peggy, and other family members. In reflecting on his changes at the bank, he compared it to “threading my way between the narrow passages and treacherous shoals between the islands [off Mount Desert], constantly correcting course for wind and tide.”

Rockefeller and Butcher put Alan Lafley, a former human resources specialist at General Electric, in charge of personnel. Lafley developed job descriptions that were used to evaluate performance. “For the first time in the bank’s history, we tied an individual’s compensation directly to results, offering bonuses and more rapid pay increases to those producing the most outstanding results.” While Rockefeller acknowledges that today such evaluations are routine, “in the ‘comfortable’ Chase culture of those days, the steps we instituted were considered positively radical.”

Rockefeller and Butcher reorganized the bank and established the Corporate Social Responsibility Program – a program specifying that annually Chase would contribute two percent of its net earnings before taxes to charities. A 25-member committee met quarterly to consider various proposals and to allocate funds.

“My rationale for an active corporate responsibility program was simple: Businesses could not afford to become isolated from the larger society of which they were an integral part. … Any business that does not respond creatively to this world and its growing insistence on an improved quality of life is cutting off its future nourishment.”

During the decade that Rockefeller was the sole CEO, earnings increased from $133 million in 1970 to just under $365 million in 1980. While Rockefeller was proud of his accomplishments as CEO, what appeared to please him most was the new culture at Chase, which was firmly engrained in the bank’s philosophy. “Our commitment to social responsibility extended beyond our charitable contributions to include programs of minority hiring, ‘lending’ executives to schools and not-for-profits, making loans and extending credit in low-income areas, and many other social initiatives. It was indeed a ‘stronger’ bank that I was passing on to my successor.”

When Rockefeller turned 65 on June 12, 1980, he was required by Chase’s bylaws to step down as chairman; however, he was asked to stay on as chairman for an additional nine months. Rockefeller continued to chair the International Advisory Committee and was on the Art Committee.

As his son, David Rockefeller Jr., noted, retiring did not mean that Rockefeller was no longer involved. Even at 100 he is still endeavoring to improve the world and the lives of all who share the planet.

“My Dad loves to learn about this wonderful, complicated world, and he loves to share what he has learned with others – whether it be flowers and beetles, art and architecture, or language and culture,” he said this week.

“He continues to travel abroad, to speak French, to enjoy local cuisine wherever he goes – and he continues to lead a life of service through the many institutions he has created and led and supported. The Land and Garden Preserve is one such example, and I know he is grateful for the public’s very positive response to his latest gift.”

Foreign travel and diplomacy

Following the six-day war in 1967, Charles Malik, a former foreign minister of Lebanon and former president of the U.N. General Assembly, called Rockefeller to tell him the Arab nations were angry because the U.S. appeared to be only supporting Israel and not considering the plight of “hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.” Because the U.S. did not have diplomatic relations with Palestine, finding funds to aid the refugees fell to the private sector. Rockefeller contacted a number of people, including some prominent members of the Jewish community, asked former President Eisenhower to serve as an honorary chair of the committee for emergency funds. It raised approximately $8 million in four months. The funds were turned over to the United Nations, which distributed the aid.

A few months later, Rockefeller toured refugee camps in Jordan and was shocked by not only the conditions but also the hopelessness and anger of the refugees. A few days after visiting the refugee camp, Rockefeller and others went to Beirut where he was handing over a check for an additional $1 million.

“Still disturbed by the scenes I had witnessed, I put aside my prepared remarks and said: ‘When a group of private American citizens established NEED [Near East Emergency Donations] to provide emergency funds to aid the refugees, we were only partially aware of the character, scale, and intensity of the problem. Now some of us have seen it for ourselves, and we are conscious not only of the humanitarian challenge that it presents, but also of the urgency in finding a solution to the problem. These refugees, some of them in flight for the second time in twenty years, are victims of political conditions over which they have no control. Their plight is a rebuke to a world that is unable to find and implement a just solution to their problem. I am convinced that until this is solved, there will not soon be peace in the Middle East.’”

In Rockefeller’s opinion, the political conditions in the Middle East made it essential that he maintain contact with Arab leaders, particularly those who did business with Chase. He began travelling to the Middle East twice a year; his regular contact and his openness in informing the Johnson, Nixon and Carter administrations about his visits made him something of a “diplomatic go-between.” In 1969, Egypt’s ambassador to the U.N. told Rockefeller that Gamal Abdel Nasser would like to meet personally with him on his next visit. On that same trip, he also met with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia.

“I returned to New York deeply concerned about what I had learned. Both President Nasser and King Faisal had been clear and unambiguous. They perceived U.S. policy as actively hostile in tone and substance toward the Arabs. They saw Soviet penetration of the area as the direct consequence of this policy and believed its continuation might have an adverse effect on the global flow of oil. On the other hand, both men seemed willing to compromise and negotiate if the United States would modify its unwavering support of Israel. It was this message I felt obligated to convey to President Nixon.”

While Rockefeller would have preferred a private meeting where he could talk candidly, the Nixon administration elected to have a meeting of several people, many of whom had oil interests.

On that visit, President Nasser also told Rockefeller he was worried about the “growing radicalism and instability in the region. ‘The Fedayeen [Palestinians] are growing stronger every day,’ said President Nassar. ‘A year ago, King Hussein could control things in his country, but no longer today – the Fedayeen are too strong. The ability of Egypt to exercise any control over them may be short lived.’” It was these remarks that Rockefeller recalled on September 11 as he watched the World Trade Center towers collapse. “President Nassar’s 1969 warning to me about the ‘growing instability and radicalism’ throughout the region resonated strongly. Despite efforts by people of good faith on all sides, this dangerous cancer has never been excised, and it now threatens the stability and prosperity of the entire world.”

Rockefeller did not just visit the Middle East and establish relations and partnerships with leaders there, he also regularly visited numerous other countries, including China, Korea, South Africa, Yemen, Yugoslavia, Romani, Cuba, Panama, Brazil and Japan. In 1964, Rockefeller brought his 20-year-old daughter, Neva, to act as scribe during his meeting with Nikita Krushchev in the Kremlin.

Public-private partnerships

Rockefeller’s understanding of public-private partnerships began with his father’s funding the construction of Rockefeller Center at a considerable financial cost during the height of the Great Depression. “But Father’s cost in building Rockefeller Center cannot be measured only in dollars. As with everything else he did, he applied himself singlehandedly to the task, agonizing over minor details and meticulously supervising the work of architects and builders. Constant worry took its toll.”

JDR’s effort provided jobs for 75,000 workers. “Union leaders were vocal in their appreciation of Father, and years later my friends in the building trades … still spoke with deep gratitude of Father’s courage and generosity.”

Beginning in 1969, Rockefeller became involved in a project to revitalize San Francisco’s decaying waterfront business district. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency hired Justin Herman to head the redevelopment effort. “Justin had a vision that was strikingly similar to Father’s hopes to revitalize Midtown Manhattan through the construction of Rockefeller Center.” By the time the first phase of the project was completed, a recession “crippled San Francisco’s real estate market.”

As others dropped out of the project, Rockefeller “faced a dilemma. I could either drop out of the project or go it alone. … However, financing it myself would require me to provide the full $60 million – the equivalent of my personal net worth outside the trust – and an additional $1 million a month until things turned around.” Although his financial advisors urged him not to continue, Rockefeller did and eventually recouped his investment.

“My thirty-year association … has been profitable and has helped spark the renaissance of San Francisco’s historic downtown and waterfront.”

With his retirement from Chase in 1981, many things changed, but one that did not was Rockefeller’s long-standing interest and involvement in projects in New York City – projects that began in the 1920s when students from Lincoln School delivered Thanksgiving baskets to poor families in Harlem. “I was faced for the first time with the reality that many people in the City were living in dire poverty and would not have had a Thanksgiving meal had we not brought it.”

In the late 1940s, Rockefeller became chairman of Morningside Heights Inc. (MHI), a not-for-profit group with a goal of revitalizing Morningside Heights. Although the area had once housed many prestigious educational and religious groups, by the mid-1940s, the area had become a slum with a high crime rate. With funding from the 1949 National Housing Act and private individuals and groups, MHI proposed a six-building apartment complex for 1,000 middle-class families from all ethnic backgrounds.

Similarly, Rockefeller embarked on yet another public-private partnership to revitalize New York’s financial district. Despite extended litigation which increased the cost of the World Trade Center, the two 110-story buildings were constructed and occupied by 1977.

“The most gratifying aspect of our work downtown was the response of the private sector. Over the next several years, more than forty new office buildings were constructed below Canal Street, and an additional 100 million square feet of office space was built and occupied. There is no question that Chase’s decision to build a new headquarters, the formation of D-LMA [Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association] with its roster of influential and involved CEOs, and the building of the World Trade Center were all pivotal in the revitalization of lower Manhattan. By any measure – employment, new construction, quality of life, property values, level of economic activity – our efforts to breathe life into a moribund downtown community had succeeded beyond our wildest expectations.”


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