He was born in Tulsa to Jewish parents forced to flee Nazi Germany just four years earlier. He grew up to be the head of an oil company, the largest shareholder in the largest state headquartered bank in Oklahoma, and the wealthiest man in Oklahoma.
He is considered by friends and colleagues to be one of the most generous, caring individuals in our community, yet these characteristics are largely unknown by most because he is modest, publicity-shy and embarrassed by honors.
The man is George Kaiser.
And despite his feelings about personal recognition and honors, he is TulsaPeople’s Tulsan of the Year, honored for his leadership in founding and nurturing the Tulsa Community Foundation.
The impact of the foundation is emerging but already profound.
In less than three years, TCF-which provides a funding source for local social service, c1v1c, education and arts organizations-has grown to $161 million in assets, ranking it among the top 50 community foundations in the United States.
The foundation has already given $15.7 million to area nonprofit agencies and has provided an endowment vehicle for 115 agencies.
George Kaiser: The philanthropist
George Kaiser’s mission of serving the needs of others is one he has quietly pursued for many years, even before his name became known through his purchase of Bank of Oklahoma in 1991.
“He did just as much charitable work... but no one knew it,” says one friend.
At Kaiser’s urging, in 1998, 21 Tulsa individuals, corporations and foundations joined in formally creating the Tulsa Community Foundation, an act that led one trustee to say, “this is, perhaps, one of George’s finest works.”
Most of the founders committed to a multimillion-dollar contribution over the next 10 years, either through or in affiliation with the foundation.
“Tulsa is an extraordinarily charitable community,” says Kaiser of his motivation to create the foundation.
“But its ability to maintain that philanthropic tradition has been challenged by the decline of the oil and gas industry , which gave rise to the wealth that spawned the independent beneficence of the Skellys, Chapmans, Mabees, Bernsens, Warrens, Helmerichs, Zarrows, Schustermans and so forth.
“Our future charitable commitment must be generated through the cooperative effort of a larger number of less endowed emerging philanthropists.”
For this reason, Kaiser believes a community foundation is the ideal means through which to continue Tulsa's charitable tradition in a changed environment. The “Tulsa Community Foundation’s success should be measured by its ability to draw to Tulsa philanthropy resources that would not have been available in its absence,” he explains.
Indeed, he has encouraged the foundation to seek less obvious sources national corporations, foundations, so called migrated Oklahomans, and smaller scale philanthropists. (Donor-advised funds at TCF can be as little as $5,000.)
“We aspire to be the servant of the donor and the donee rather than having a dominant charitable purpose of our own,” says Kaiser. “Or as Tom Lehrer said, ‘When the rocket goes up, who knows where it comes down?’ ‘That’s not my department,’ said Wernher von Braun.’”
The Foundation’s growth has been nothing less than astounding. Executive Director Phil Lakin reports that TCF is in the final stages of its 2001 audit, so he did not yet have official numbers to report. Unofficially, however, with the inclusion of 2001 information, “TCF would be in the top 50 community foundations by asset size,” he says. Additionally, TCF will probably be “fourth in the nation (yes, fourth) in gifts received at $130 million.”
In a 2001 survey of donor-advised funds conducted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Tulsa Community Foundation had the largest percentage asset growth among all funds in the survey.
“All this in just 2.5 years,” Lakin reflects. “That’s what George Kaiser and Tulsa can do when they get behind the creation of a community foundation.”
The Endowment Challenge Grant Program
Last year, the Foundation committed $1 million to local charities through the Endowment Challenge Grant Program, which assists organizations having small or nonexistent “safety-nets.”
“This is a very significant program that was inspired by George,” says Lakin.
Through the program, selected organizations received grants ranging from $5,000 to $100,000, provided they successfully raised at least an equal amount through their own efforts. At least 50 organizations received “starter kit” endowment grants, generally $5,000 each.
Paula Marshall-Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the Bama Cos. and a member of the TCF Board of Trustees says that Kaiser’s “concern was that after meeting with many of them and the United Way, most of these organizations did not have any funds in endowment in case of emergencies.
“I believe this demonstrates his concern for the agencies in Tulsa to have funds needed to meet the needs of the community under any circumstances.”
George Kaiser: The man
George Kaiser’s eighth grade teacher described him as having “A fine and inquisitive mind, but often seeks to disturb the class with irrelevant remarks and capers.” Indeed, friends and colleagues can tell story after story alluding to Kaiser’s sharp mind and dry wit, as well as his humility.
The brilliance is no doubt due to his parents, Herman and Kate Kaiser. The Kaisers fled Nazi Germany, where Herman had been a lawyer and judge, in 1938. They lived in Great Britain for two years, then settled in Tulsa in 1940, where George was born two years later, the first American citizen in the family. He has an older sister, Tulsan Ruth Kaiser Nelson.
The family chose Tulsa because George Kaiser’s great uncle, Sam Miller, and great aunt, Francis Kaiser Miller, already lived here. Sam Miller started Francis Oil and Gas in Tulsa in the mid-1920s, naming it after his wife. Herman Kaiser joined Miller in business and helped build what became Kaiser-Francis Oil Co.
Kaiser characterizes himself as having certain elements of his mother’s personality, “including a bit of introversion and the impulse to puncture pomposity” adding, “More of my analytical ‘skill set’ comes from my father, but not much of my approach to issues.”
Kaiser also possesses an innate sense of humility. “I feel uncomfortable and guilty about receiving recognition,” he confesses, often feeling the recognition to be extravagant beyond that which is deserved.
That sense of humility also relates to his view on wealth and materialism: “Strange as it may sound coming from a ‘robber baron,’” he says, “I am rather antimaterialistic and believe in a more equitable distribution of wealth than what is generally found in the United States.”
Intensely private, Kaiser reveals little about his personal life. He says he has no hobbies, but does have some “casual interests.” He runs and he bicycles. While running, he likes to listen to books on tape such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and other 19th century authors. He says there’s no particular reason he singles out these authors: “It’s an area of my studies that I had neglected in school and I am attracted to those particular authors.” He also appreciates Russian authors like Dostoevsky, Gogol and Goncharov.
George Kaiser: The businessman
Kaiser seems to easily manage more careers than three men. He is concurrently:
• Chairman of the board of BOK Financial and Bank of Oklahoma.
• President and principal owner of Kaiser-Francis Oil Co. and a
• Real estate investor, with particular interest in senior housing communities.
Kaiser became front page news when he stepped up and purchased the Bank of Oklahoma in 1990 (the sale was completed in 1991). The purchase earned him a slot on Forbes magazine’s lists of the 400 Richest Americans and the World’s Richest People. His fortune was most recently estimated at about $2.5 billion and growing.
In business terminology, Kaiser is known as a contrarian investor-that is, one who goes against the herd. A contrarian seeks out of-favor sectors, may sell when others buy, and so on. At the time he offered to purchase Bank of Oklahoma, it was considered troubled. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. had maintained substantial interests in the bank since 1986.
Kaiser put up $60.7 million, later adding an additional $34 million to his initial investment.
He emphasized his goal of restoring the Bank of Oklahoma to local control.
In a 1991 letter to the editor published in the Tulsa Tribune, Kaiser wrote: “I have continuously stated that my purpose in acquiring Bank of Oklahoma was to return ownership of the institution to local control and to restore its leadership position in the communities it serves.”
Today, BOK Financial Corporation is a multibank holding company headquartered in Tulsa. Assets of the organization exceed $10 billion. BOK Financial’s trust company subsidiaries are responsible for over $17 billion in assets.
George Kaiser: As others see him
Although embarrassed by the attention given to his charitable endeavors, others are not shy in praising him. Felicia Collins Correia, executive director of Domestic Violence Intervention Services, worked with Kaiser during the organization’s recent capital campaign.
“When asked, he freely offers advice that will help your organization — and I have always taken it!” she says.
“I don’t believe he gets involved with agencies without first doing his homework. And once he decides to get involved, he does just that. His support and concern for what Domestic Violence Intervention Services does is genuine. We consider him a true friend.”
Gail Lapidus, executive director of Family and Children’s Services, who also received Kaiser’s counsel during their campaign says he “is one of the most intelligent and wisest people I know ...
“From time to time I would call and ask questions which would help me think through something. He was always eager to help me.”
Lakin, who works with him, adds, “Countless people tell me they have called George on occasion to ask his opinion of a charitable event or campaign, only to tell me later that he spent over an hour with them on the phone.
“Certainly George has plenty of work to do to keep him more than occupied. But he will give that time up if he knows he can make a meaningful difference to another person or group.”
Then there’s what others describe as Kaiser’s extraordinary intelligence and keen mind and what Lakin calls his his “uncanny ability to retain and recall virtually everything he has ever read, seen or heard.” Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman of Congregation B’nai Emunah synagogue says, “George is a gifted analyst and arbiter, the court of first resort when public and institutional issues get complicated and contentious.
“What makes all of this possible is a combination of enormous intelligence and the fact that self-interest is never part of the equation. And it’s never a matter of simply gathering the ‘facts.’ George’s work with groups has a social and emotional dimension. He’s alert to need — what people yearn for and aspire to — and never misses a nuance or inflection.”
Collins Correia remembers that “During our capital campaign he was often the first to show up at our meetings. He kept track of all that was discussed at every meeting, and often could reference back without looking at his notes.
“I also remember at the beginning of the campaign, I thought he was using a calculator, but I could never see it. Then I realized he was adding and multiplying all of these figures in his head.”
Lakin says, “... Surely most of George’s ability is God-given, but some of his mental capacity comes through conscious practice. For instance, when other people talk, George listens-intently.
“The fortunate/unfortunate part of this is that he memorizes whatever is said, because he listens so closely. He then combines what he has learned with everything else he knows, making him that much better.
“Someone once commented that listening to George is like trying to drink from a fire hose. This can only be true because he first listened.”
Along with his intelligence comes his sense of humor. “Working with George is like being in a focused, business-like, funny environment where you are getting so much accomplished," says Marshall-Chapman.
“People don’t forget their action items around George because he’ll work ten times harder than most. When you least expect it, he’ll crack a joke with a very dry sense of humor, and if you’re not careful you’ll miss the puns ... there are plenty of these,” she promises.
Kaiser is also unpretentious, say admirers, and views himself as something of a regular fellow.
Collins Correia remembers the first time she called Kaiser asking for his support and he returned her call. “My secretary was not aware of who George Kaiser was, so I had no idea who was holding,” says Collins Correia, who was wrapping up another conversation. “When I picked up the phone, I found out it was George Kaiser! I was horrified — I had kept him waiting! He didn't seem offended, but just began asking me who our supporters were.”
This sense of being an ordinary guy overflows into small kindnesses as well as large. “I want others to know how conscientious and considerate George is — not only in his philanthropy, but also in his daily life,” says Lakin.
“My family and I moved to Tulsa in ‘99, and George took his time to find our house the day we moved in-he even brought us our very first dinner,” he says.
“A man of his caliber doesn’t have to do things like this — he can have them done for him. But George did it himself, because he wanted to, because it’s who he is. I know my wife and I will never forget this simple but very meaningful gesture.
“George doesn’t seem to consider himself any better than any other person — just fortunate to have what he has been given and what he has earned and very eager to make it bigger and better.”
Along with the lack of pretense, humility seems to run deep in George Kaiser’s veins.
“I love the fact that George is modest about his accomplishments and philosophical about his losses,” says Rabbi Fitzerman. “I don’t know a soul who works harder or with greater drive, but unlike others who operate at the same level of intensity, the energy he generates has the effect of energizing others.
“He carries people with him because he’s willing to share the center and quick to invite others into deeper involvement. George’s philanthropic program is all about partnerships.”
“George Kaiser is the most altruistic person I know,” says Lakin, echoing others’ comments. “His heart and mind are truly focused on selflessly giving to others in need-without recognition or reward.”
“Our tradition calls modesty the noblest ornament,” explains Rabbi Fitzerman. “By that measure, George wears the crown of his own good name.”'
Born: July 29, 1942
Education: Tulsa Central High School, 1960; Harvard University, bachelor’s degree, 1964; Harvard Graduate School of Business, master’s in business administration, 1966.
Family: Wife, Betty, a former Tulsa Community College English instructor, who he met on a blind date; children, Philip, Leah, and Emily.
Business Experience: Joined Kaiser-Francis Oil after graduation; assumed management in 1969; board chairman, BOK Financial and Bank of Oklahoma; president and principal owner Kaiser-Francis Oil; real estate investor.
Interests: Running, bicycling, listening to audio books of 19th-century authors.