At 81, Bernie Marcus is busy – giving away most of his money and writing a book.
He opened up on both topics and a good bit more when we sat down last week.
Marcus said the lion’s share of his wealth, which Forbes estimates at $1.5 billion, will be donated to charity.
This summer, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett challenged the nation’s billionaires to donate at least half of their wealth. Marcus is among those who have signed their “Giving Pledge.”
But Marcus told me he’s not leaving anywhere close to half to his family. They will be taken care of, although not excessively.
“My kids are not going to end up with my money. They’re OK,” Marcus said. “I’ve been giving away money for 25 years. . . . The vast majority will go to charity — in my life and after.”
Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, donated about $250 million to launch the Georgia Aquarium. He founded the Marcus Institute, which provides comprehensive services for kids with developmental disabilities. And his Marcus Foundation focuses on children, medical research, free enterprise, Jewish causes and the community – causes likely to continue to receive funds.
While continuing his philanthropic work, Marcus is also venting his spleen on current affairs in a new book, due out next year.
The theme is how he and Arthur Blank, also a philanthropist, would not be able to create a giant like Home Depot if they started today.
“Home Depot could never have 2,000 stores. We’d be lucky to have five, six, seven or eight,” he said. “There is no way this could ever grow [big] because of the litigation and regulations.”
But Bernie, we fell into this financial mess partly because of deregulation, didn’t we?
That doesn’t justify the over-regulation the Obama administration signed into law as part of the financial reform, he replied.
Marcus, a top prospect for the Tea Party, is a big believer in a limited government that allows businesses to create wealth and jobs – and cuts deficits rather than grows them.
But Keynesian economics says that when consumers and businesses take a timeout from spending, the federal government needs to step up spending or the downturn will get worse.
Hogwash, Marcus essentially replied. (He actually used a stronger word but this is a family newspaper.)
“I ran an $80 billion business. The government is creating unsustainable debt,” he said. “You support people who hire people.”
Small and medium-sized businesses – which he defined as those with $250 million or less in annual revenue – create the bulk of jobs in this country. The government’s role, he said, is to “get out of their way.”
“If you don’t have fat cats, who creates the jobs?” he asked rhetorically.
Marcus also had strong views about the best ways to lead a company:
– “Never look back and relive your mistakes. Only learn from your mistakes,” he said. CEOs should not spend time blaming people. They should fix problems as quickly as possible.
– “Listening is very, very important,” he said. Top execs need to surround themselves with people willing to challenge their ideas. There is a difference between a negative voice and a constructive one with a better idea. Don’t confuse the two.
“Nobody was afraid of me,” he said. That meant lots of give-and-take that produced better ideas than a more authoritarian structure would have. He believes in the “inverted pyramid” in which listening to customers and store employees becomes the key to success.
That approach needs to pervade a company’s entire culture, including the interaction of the top bananas. “Arthur and I were totally opposites. We learned to listen to each other,” he said.
– “You have to take risks or you’re in deep trouble,” he said. That doesn’t mean you’re careless. You have to think it through. But capitalism requires risks.
During the interview, Marcus was pessimistic about the direction of the country. At the same time, he was bullish about Home Depot’s current CEO, Frank Blake.
“Blake came after a disaster,” Marcus said. “I hired [Bob] Nardelli. I made a mistake. I thought a non-retailer could adapt to retailing. But he didn’t listen. He knew it all. . . . Blake was the last guy I would have picked. But he’s been brilliant.”
“He listens and learns.”
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