The Georgia Aquarium was his nearly $250 million gift to Georgia.
Before that, he donated millions for an autism center in Atlanta. More recently came millions more for a trauma center and a stroke and neuroscience center at Grady Health System.
Those weren’t the first acts of philanthropy by Atlanta billionaire Bernie Marcus, who says he has donated about $2 billion to more than 300 organizations throughout the world over the course of his life. And they won’t be the last. Before he’s done, the 90-year-old Home Depot co-founder predicts, he’ll give away billions more, accounting for most of his remaining wealth.
Marcus told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he’s still discovering worthy causes.
“Every day of my life, there are new challenges for me that I want to get involved with,” he said.
He also has been a major political donor. According to OpenSecrets.org, he was a top contributor to Donald Trump during his presidential run. And Marcus told the AJC that he plans to support the president’s re-election bid. While Trump “sucks” at communication, Marcus said, the president deserves praise for boosting U.S. jobs, confronting China on trade and taking action against Iranian and North Korean aggression.
Marcus said his political giving remains far smaller than what he gives to philanthropic causes and what he plans to give in the future.
After he dies, 80 to 90 percent of whatever is left of his wealth will go to his foundation, which in turn will give to philanthropic causes, he said.
He’s left instructions for the foundation board, outlining his priorities — from medical discoveries and treatment for kids with autism to creating 20 to 25 centers around the nation to help veterans suffering from brain injuries and post-traumatic stress.
But, he said, he hopes to donate most of his money while he’s still got a heartbeat. He’s active and said he doesn’t feel his age, despite a recent round of pneumonia and a heart valve replacement — done at a unit he funded at Piedmont Hospital.
“I want to live to be 100 because I want to be in a position to give it away to those things that I really believe in.”
It’s simple, he said.“I’ve got all the houses I need. I live very well. My kids are taken care of. Everything I live for now is finding the right things to put my money into and that can give me a rate of return in emotion and doing good things for this world.”
Marcus declined to say what his net worth is or predict exactly how much money he’ll give away.
Forbes estimates his wealth at $5.8 billion. The media outlet ranked him as the 109th richest person in the nation in 2018. Early this year, Bloomberg estimated the value of his holdings at $4.53 billion.
Figure 90 percent of that, plus the $2 billion Marcus said he’s already given away, and the total giving could top $6 billion.
An AJC search of 15 years of the Marcus Foundation’s public tax filings shows about $660 million in charitable disbursements. That doesn’t include the foundation’s grants in different years or giving Marcus and his wife Billi made outside their foundations.
“What Bernie has done, and what he plans to do in his lifetime, will not only bring incredibly significant impact on those nonprofit institutions today, but will also continue to benefit those organizations for generations to come,” said Alicia Philipp, the president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. “He is an inspiration to philanthropy in Atlanta.”
Georgia has seen other big givers, though it’s difficult to come up with a complete list or amounts. Only some records are made public and many donations are made anonymously.
The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, named for the legendary Coca-Cola leader, has made more than $3.9 billion in donations since being established in the 1930s. Related foundations tied to bottlers Joseph and Lettie Pate Whitehead have donated another $2.3 billion-plus.
CNN founder Ted Turner has donated $1.5 billion — the biggest chunk of it to support United Nations causes — and holds about 2 million acres of largely undeveloped wild lands, according to his spokespeople.
A foundation for Marcus’ fellow Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank reports donating more than $360 million for early childhood development, education, green space, community transformation, and the arts, with plans to increase its rate of giving. That doesn’t include money donated before the foundation was set up by Blank, who owns the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United.
Marcus, meanwhile, said how much more he donates will depend on Georgia’s biggest public company. Most of his wealth, he said, is still tied to stock in Home Depot, the company that he, Blank and Ken Langone struggled to launch in the late 1970s.
In-store sales for many U.S. retailers have been thrashed by online competition. Home Depot has been among those who have pivoted to build big online operations of their own.
Marcus, who retired as the company’s chairman in 2002, said he isn’t worried.
“Home Depot is doing well because they understand the philosophy of reinventing themselves,” he said.
“At one point, we had real concern that Amazon was going to put everybody out of business. I don’t feel that is true today. … They are not going to run away with our business.”
Marcus has often described his childhood of growing up poor in New Jersey, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His mother would have him and his siblings contribute money to needy family members and to causes in Israel.
The trigger for his organized philanthropic giving, though, began decades later when he led a California-based home improvement chain. A distraught employee planned to quit after doctors discovered he had cancer and told him he wouldn’t live long. Marcus said he asked a nonprofit medical and research center to help the employee. The man survived.
That kind of impact struck Marcus beyond short-term business successes. “You save somebody’s life, that’s more meaningful than a quarterly report.”
Sometimes philanthropic giving is contagious.
Hundreds of friends and fans of Marcus recently gathered at the Georgia Aquarium in honor of his 90th birthday. The event, though, was pitched as a fundraiser for some of Marcus’ favorite causes. Donors ponied up more than $117 million.
Comments from Bernie Marcus:
On Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank recently announcing $20 million in donations to some of Marcus’ favorite causes:“That’s a big deal. … We have a policy. Arthur and I, we don’t solicit each other on anything. I don’t solicit him on politics. I don’t solicit him on any of my charitable things. And he doesn’t solicit me. … But when we get together, we do talk about what we are doing. And if one of us wants to join with the other, we do it.”
On Trump’s strengths as president:“He’s got a businessman’s common sense approach to most things. … Now, do I agree with every move that he makes? No, I don’t. But the truth is he has produced more than anybody else. He has. If we look at this country, I would say that we are better off today than we were eight years ago or six years ago.”
On Trump’s biggest flaw as president: “I’ll tell you what he has not done well: His communication sucks. I mean he takes on every battle. He’s fighting. He does things he shouldn’t be doing. … As president of the United States, I’d rather him do things that are meaningful.”
On his net worth:“You know when I find out what I’m worth? Once a year, I go through it with my accountants. I don’t have a clue. My key is how much can I give away this year?”
On antisemitism:“One area I’m really concerned about in the United States today and that’s antisemitism and anti-Israel in college campuses. I am very concerned about that. I suffered it when I was a kid. And I am seeing it come back today to what I had as a kid 80 years go.”