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Warren Hellman – bluegrass philanthropist funds annual festival

Tue, 01 Nov 2011 11:59:00
Article by:
Thomas Figg
Attendees at Warren Hellman's 5-star rated bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park - Photo by Mike Griffin.
Warren Hellman stood on the stage below a warm September sky. Thousands upon thousands of delighted music lovers stretched out before him as far as the eye could see. Hellman looked out toward his crowd.

“Don’t we have the best city in the world?” he asked.

The crowd showed its approval with thundering applause – rocking Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadow.

Countless people hollered, “Thank you, Warren,” as Ed Lee, the interim mayor, in a gesture of appreciation presented Hellman with the flag of San Francisco from City Hall encased in glass and wood.

Hellman – one of the wealthiest citizens of San Francisco – is widely known as a philanthropist and financier. He is the great-grandson of Isaias W. Hellman, a prominent Banker and philanthropist, and a founding father of the University of Southern California.

For the past 11 years, as part of his philanthropic agenda, Warren Hellman has held this free music festival – Hardly, Strictly Bluegrass.

“This is Warren’s gift to San Francisco,” said Jessica Brown, who has been coming to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass since its first year in 2000. According to her, at the time, there was only one stage and you could ride your bike right up to the front.

This year’s 11th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival was held Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. The festival included over 90 bands that played on six stages. Headliners included Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Chris Isaak and an assortment of the world’s best blue grass and country music entertainers.

Up to a million people attended the event this year.

Hellman doesn’t recall why he started Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. He just wanted too. So he did.

“It’s a lot like the story of the guy who swallows the goldfish at a cocktail party,” he said. When he leaves, his friends ask him why he did it, and he tells them that at the time it seemed like the thing to do.”

Hellman doesn’t waste time.

In 1951, at age 16, he was already in college. “Cal made me a grownup,” he said.

After earning his undergraduate degree in a general curriculum at the University of California, Berkeley, Hellman moved on to Harvard Business School, receiving his MBA in 1959.

He took the banking world by storm. At 28, he became the youngest person to be named a partner at Lehman Brothers.

He later served as the president and head of their Investment Banking Division.

It was an instant fit with no learning curve, Hellman has said. It was rather like something that he has attributed to genetics – banking is in his blood.

In 1976, Hellman launched his own venture capital firm of Hellman, Ferri Investment Associates, which later became Matrix Partners.

In 1984, he co-founded Hellman & Friedman, a private equity investment firm. Hellman & Freidman has raised close to $25 billion over the years for investment in promising companies.

Hellman has a rich history of philanthropic endeavors. He founded the San Francisco Free Clinic, with his daughter, Patricia Hellman Gibbs. This clinic has provided health care to those who cannot afford health insurance. He is a big part of the San Francisco Foundation, which provides millions of dollars every year to culturally enrich San Francisco.

“Philanthropy has been a tradition of our family since Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments,” Hellman said.

The Koret Foundation – a foundation that supports organizations and enterprises in the areas of education, arts and culture, and Israel and Jewish peoplehood – recently invited Hellman to serve as a trustee on their board. “The Koret Foundation is the most organized nonprofit I have ever worked with, “Hellman stated.

Hellman is also involved with The San Francisco Education Foundation. He serves on the board of the Walter A. Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, and is the trustee of the UC Berkeley Foundation.

Hellman is president of the local Jewish Community Endowment Fund. He even started a nonprofit newspaper – The Bay Citizen.

Challenging projects are his favorite.

Consider his most memorable philanthropic challenge – turned success – the 800-space underground parking facility in Golden Gate Park. It was a battle between Hellman and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

According to Hellman, those who were most opposed to it now are the greatest beneficiaries. “I explained to them that the parking garage was the one hope they had to having the park partially closed on Saturdays (for bikes).”

“They said, ‘No, No, No’.”

“I said, ‘Yes, Yes, Yes’.”

“And guess what?” he said. “The park is partially closed on Saturdays and Sundays now.”

Many people at age 77 might consider retirement – especially with money in the bank. Not Hellman. He rises every morning at 3:30 and walks for exercise. Then he practices his banjo for at least an hour, before heading off to a busy schedule master minding financial case studies and making nonprofits as efficient and successful as he possibly can.

He tours with his six-piece bluegrass band, the Wronglers, promoting their newly released album, “Heirloom Music.”

For 20 years, he was on the board of Levi’s. Their principle competition was Wrangler. So he named his band accordingly.

The Wronglers, joined by Jimmie Gilmore, played on the Rooster stage during the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass this year.

Hellman said that he enjoys doing something where he is well below the confidence line, and considers himself the least skilled musician of the band. “It’s a hell of a lot of fun,” he said. “When I’m on stage, I am terrified.”
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