“In the charitable world as in the business world, opportunities should drive budgets, not the other way around.”
In one succinct quote, George Kaiser offers up every puzzle piece needed to understand the man and his philosophies on money, business, and philanthropy. All are inextricably linked. He’s an invisible billionaire of sorts, who swats away any ranking of himself as one of the wealthiest in the world like frivolous, disposable news. If you don’t live in his beloved birthplace of Tulsa, Okla., you may never have heard his name—and that suits Kaiser perfectly fine.
Fiercely private, Kaiser shuns publicity, never attends society functions, and hardly ever grants interviews. He doesn’t own big-bucks toys like vacation homes, exotic cars, airplanes or yachts. He wears a cheap watch and always flies coach. Kaiser’s passions instead lie equally in his businesses and charitable investments. He commits half his 70-hour work week to each, so the first can finance the other.
George Kaiser quietly owns empires in oil and gas, banking, and private equity. His father, an attorney, fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and ultimately landed in Tulsa where the family finally settled in 1940. George was born two years later. He went on to earn a Harvard MBA then joined his father and uncle at their small E&P known as Kaiser-Francis Oil Co. When his father passed in 1969, Kaiser bought out his uncle and over a short time grew Kaiser-Francis into one of the most successful upstream operators in the nation. The company currently operates in Okla., Texas, N.M., Wyo., N.D., and La.
Following the rapid growth of his oil and gas company, Kaiser in 1991 acquired Bank of Oklahoma for $60 million and a 60% ownership, launching his personal wealth into the stratosphere. He created Argonaut Private Equity in 2002, which today manages billion-dollar investments in 19 companies including those energy related. He’s also a tireless champion for education and recovery among the city’s impoverished and marginalized.
But Kaiser doesn’t believe in check-writing handouts. Through his George Kaiser Family Foundation, the now 78-year-old develops and finances ground-breaking programs and initiatives that merge every requirement to deliver meaningful results. He, along with other private investors, built the 100-acre Gathering Place in 2014—now a Tulsa icon intended to unite every socioeconomic group at a learning park uniquely created for everyone. Kaiser has invested more than $10 billion in Tulsa and its citizens, putting him third behind Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates as the largest American philanthropists. But there’s that annoying ranking again.
Several years ago Warren Buffett famously quipped to Forbes, “I’d fight for the opportunity to be president of the George Kaiser fan club.” Somehow, we don’t think he’s alone.
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