The Coopermans put millions into philanthropy
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The Coopermans put millions into philanthropy

Leon Cooperman talks with some Cooperman College Scholars.
Leon Cooperman talks with some Cooperman College Scholars.

Investor and philanthropist Leon Cooperman seems to go a long way toward disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that the rich are different from you and me.

Although Mr. Cooperman’s niche in the constellation of the wealthy falls on the sunny side of the decimal point, as in the top 0.1 percent or even further to the right, depending which metrics you use, his lifestyle suggests more comfort than consumption. And this with a net fortune estimated north of $3 billion, which he now is in the process of giving away.

On a recent sunny but blustery morning, he padded into the living room of his spacious ranch-style house wearing blue shorts and a polo top, seemingly more suited to Boca Raton, from where he and his wife, Toby, had just returned, than to Short Hills. The retired Goldman Sachs partner, hedge fund founder, and full-time philanthropist now lives more than half the year in Florida and is quick to add that “it’s more for arthritis than it is for taxes,” using the same crispness and concision that he’s been known to apply to comments on politics, personalities, and fiscal policy. The Coopermans spent warm-weather time bonding with their two sons, their sons’ wives, and their three grandchildren, and enjoying a few deep-sea fishing excursions.

At 77, Leon Cooperman is as much a reflection of his yichus as the son of immigrant parents as he is of the finishing school called Wall Street, a person seasoned with both a pinch of Horatio Alger and a heaping spoonful of self-confidence. Both his father, Harry, and his mother, Martha, came to the States from Poland in the early 1920s, his dad as an apprentice plumber who would ply his trade until heart issues forced his retirement, and his mother an émigré who became a homemaker and raised two sons. Although both Americanized (his dad read the New York Times every day), Yiddish remained the lingua franca of the household. The elder Mr. Cooperman (nee Cooperwasa as phonetically remembered) was insistent about a college education, leading to a profession, for his younger son. Lee grew up in the south Bronx of the 1940s, attending public schools while always hustling, or entrepreneuring as he might prefer to call it, shining shoes, bagging at the fruit market, or working the Borscht Belt as a waiter and busboy.

His career trajectory would follow an arc from shoeshine kit to the newly coed Hunter College, then a brief job at Xerox, back to grad school at Columbia, and on to a storied career at Goldman Sachs before establishing a multibillion-dollar hedge fund, and then taking the Bill Gates-Warren Buffet giving pledge. Mr. Cooperman’s game-changing donations, gifts, grants, and other expressions of beneficence over the years have affected sectors as diverse as healthcare, the arts, and education, most notably supporting deserving students, principally from Newark, to prepare for college and stay the course toward a diploma. He has donated extensively to Jewish and Israeli causes, of course, but notes with almost ecumenical pride that this represents less than half of his giving.

And in the process of all this career reinvention, Mr. Cooperman seems to have undercut a second Fitzgerald dictum: that there are no second (or third) acts in American life.

When he graduated from racially integrated Morris High School in the Bronx (unusually diverse for the time), finance and investments were the last thing on Mr. Cooperman’s mind. Hunter College uptown was a walk away from his family’s apartment, and tuition each semester was just $24 (with no zeroes after that number). During his sophomore year, he and Toby Alowitz, another Bronx product (he was southeast, she was west), met in French class, and the next semester, she invited him to the junior prom. “It was a good deal all around,” he recalled. “She helped me with French and we got free tickets to the prom because she was class president and I was vice president.” They married right after they graduated in 1964 (the wedding was at the Park Terrace under the El on Jerome Avenue) and will celebrate their 57th anniversary in August.

It was then that Mr. Cooperman made the wrenching decision that would alter the course of his career. “Back in the 1960s, if you finished your major and minor in three years, they allowed you to count your first year of dental or medical school toward your fourth year of college,” he explained for a 2019 oral history marking Hunter’s 150 anniversary. (He’s donated more than $30 million to his alma mater for scholarships and the library.) “I was a solid B student, no genius, and I toiled very hard during the summer of 1963. I took physical chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania — chemistry was my major — and when I finished … I enrolled at U of P dental school.”

It took him only eight days to question his choice. “I found out later that dentists had the highest suicide rate among professionals because they work in a very confined area and they inflict a lot of pain on their patients,” he said. Compounding the dilemma, Mr. Cooperman already had paid tuition and etched his initials into his dental instruments. When he broke the news, two parties didn’t react well: his father was upset, both with a working man’s lament about lost tuition, room, and board as forever being robbed of the opportunity to brag on “my son, the dentist.” And the dean at University of Pennsylvania used a parting interview to berate Mr. Cooperman for denying a spot to another student, a patently false screed since the semester was still fresh and there was a backlog of applicants.

Mr. Cooperman quickly matriculated back into Hunter, picked 10 economics courses, and aced them all. “I found what interested me,” he said simply. Years later, he reflected: “My fondest memory is getting praised by the [Hunter] dean when he allowed me … back into college. He was the only one that appreciated the trauma I was going through. My father was very upset with me; my mother was very upset; we had wasted all this money on tuition. All my friends in my fraternity said, ‘You were off to dental school, what the hell are you doing back here?’”

In hindsight, he credits intuition, plain and simple, for his decision. It’s one of three bedrock beliefs in which he places great store, the others being hard work and luck. Another key example of acting on intuition, also involving education, came when Mr. Cooperman decided, while he was working for Xerox as a quality engineer while attending business school at the University of Rochester at night, that his brutal schedule wasn’t working. He intuited that he needed an MBA from a school like Columbia to mold himself into a more attractive job candidate. Once again, just as she had helped him in French class, Toby Cooperman stepped up and offered to work full time as a learning specialist with neurologically impaired children. “My wife. God bless her, worked, and I got my MBA from Columbia,” he said. “I got a free education at Hunter and I paid through the nose at that time for Columbia, but that changed the whole trajectory of my life. “

Mr. Cooperman’s intuition paid off; the Columbia degree gave him the cachet that attracted job offers. When Goldman Sachs came calling, the Coopermans had a six-month-old-son, a 1964 Dodge Dart, a National Defense Education Act student loan, and a one-bedroom apartment in Riverdale. He accepted the offer, although others were more lucrative, because he liked their people. “You worked your tail off at Goldman,” he said. “There was no question about it. If you were lazy, you didn’t survive. You had to be hardworking and smart. It was a meritocracy.” Apparently, he took his own advice, making it to partner and staying there nearly a quarter of a century.

Early in his stint, another of Mr. Cooperman’s bedrock beliefs — luck — came into play. “I went to Goldman as an analyst for a senior person,” he said. “I was very lucky; every step along the way things broke in my favor.” When this person was passed over for promotion and quit, Mr. Cooperman got the job. It was 1972, and he had moved up to head of research at a relatively young age. Nearly 18 years of 70-hour weeks and sacrificed vacations lay ahead; he energized his department from the bottom of the rating rungs by industry evaluators into a topflight operation, complementing the trading and sales arms of the business and catapulting Goldman to the upper reaches of Wall Street.

“When I left the research department in 1990 to start Goldman Sachs Asset Management, we were number one in these polls,” Mr. Cooperman said. “I carried water on two shoulders because I also competed in the portfolio strategy slot. It was a new type of activity on the Street; now it’s very commonplace.

“Over my career what I most enjoy is finding something somebody does not see, making a bet, and having Mr. Market hopefully prove me right.”

Although two of Mr. Cooperman’s principles — his reliance on rigorous analysis and research, and his determination to follow his intuition and act on hunches —seem to be contradictory, he followed them both, and they worked consistently well for him. Ultimately, however, it led to a parting of the ways with Goldman. As he told his Hunter College interviewer: “I wanted to be an investor and the firm was making it very difficult to be an investor. They got very traumatized by accusations of insider trading by one of the partners. They were reluctant. They developed all sorts of lists — rumored list, gray list, restricted list — and you were made to feel unclean if you bought stocks and that was my whole life. So in November 1991 I retired, and I started Omega Advisors, Inc. on January 1, 1992. I was pleased to say I did it in a very high-class way because Goldman Sachs invested with me.

“I believe in noblesse oblige,” he continued. “I told Goldman: ‘I’m not leaving over money; I’m very happy at the firm. If my having my own hedge fund is a violation of my non-compete, I’ll just sit in a friend’s office and invest my own money.’ They said: ‘We don’t want to have a hedge fund, so you can do what you want to do.’ I was not a no-name. I spent 25 years at Goldman. I took the research department and showed my ability to manage people because it’s part of the job. When you have a hedge fund and you have people working for you, it’s to motivate them properly and get the best out of people. I had a track record that made it easy for me to raise money at the time.”

Mr. Cooperman addresses a group of the students he funds.

(In 2016, Mr. Cooperman and his associates at Omega were accused of insider trading by the SEC and the following year agreed to a fine of $4.9 million without acknowledging any wrongdoing. “We paid the fine to avoid substantially higher legal fees,” he said. “In the end I won because there was no admit, no deny, and no time out. In my opinion, the SEC conducts itself in an abusive and destructive manner. The staff is less interested in the facts and more in putting a notch in their belts to trade for better jobs later. Interestingly, after my case was settled, the senior people involved were no longer with the SEC.”)

While participating in his oral history for Hunter, Mr. Cooperman described 1998 as his toughest year at the hedge fund. An employee he brought over from Goldman Sachs and granted wide authority led Omega into a tainted deal. The Justice Department came in and ultimately found Mr. Cooperman had no knowledge of the transaction. But the ordeal took an emotional toll, as did the Great Recession of 2008. “I lost a lot of money for the investors,” he said. “I felt worse about the investors than I felt about myself. I’m the largest investor in the fund, so I lost more money than anybody. But I felt I let down my investors. The good news is we came roaring back in 2009. We held our positions and we’ve done well. Over the entire run, I think I’ve made 15, 16 percent a year gross for the investor.

In 2010, Mr. and Mrs. Cooperman received a dinner invitation that would help chart the next chapter of their lives. They sat down with Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Mike Bloomberg, and they were invited to join the then nascent and novel Giving Pledge. In his letter of acceptance to Mr. Buffet, Mr. Cooperman outlined his and his wife’s core beliefs in philanthropy. “Toby and I feel it is our moral imperative to give others the opportunity to pursue the American Dream by sharing our financial success. The case for philanthropy has been stated by others in a most articulate way and in words that impressed me. In the early 1900s, Andrew Carnegie said: ‘He who dies rich dies disgraced.’ In the 1930s, Winston Churchill observed that ‘We make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give.’ And in his inaugural in 1961, John F. Kennedy declared: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Well before these gentlemen expressed their thoughts, it was written in the Talmud that ‘a man’s net worth is measured not by what he earns but rather what he gives away.’

“It is this spirit that we enthusiastically agree to take the Giving Pledge.”

As of last year, the campaign has attracted more than 200 signatories from 23 countries with an estimated $600 billion subscribed. The Coopermans also have joined the Jewish Future Pledge co-founded by Mike Leven and Amy Holtz.

In 2018, Mr. Cooperman, then 75, sent his Omega investors a letter telling them that he was retiring. (Omega is the final letter of the Greek alphabet, in this case as in last hurrah). I’m surprised I retired,” he said. “I love what I’m doing.” But he also told them that he “didn’t want to spend his remaining years running after the S&P 500. … So I swapped income for pressure. I have no pressure and I have no income other than extracting profit from the market through intelligent investment decisions. I tell people I’m a little bit like Hyman Roth. If you remember the scene from ‘Godfather II’ at the airport and right before he got plugged … they were questioning him. He said, ‘I’m a retired executive living on a pension.’

“I’m a retired executive living on investment income.”

As a result, Mr. Cooperman and his family are the sole investors in the Omega Family Office. “My family and I have made a decision to give away all of our wealth in our lifetime. I should say, more correctly, half of my wealth in my lifetime. The other half I’m giving to my children to form a foundation as my legacy to my kids.” That would be Wayne, 54, who lives in New Jersey and is a money manager. He and his wife, Jodi, have two daughters, one a Stanford graduate and the other a sophomore at Duke. Younger son Mike, 52, lives in Manchester, Vermont, and is a Ph.D. doing environmental research. He and his wife, Anne, have a 13-year-old son. Mr. Cooperman’s brother, Howard, 85, is a retired men’s clothing manufacturer; the two remain very close.

The Coopermans’ philanthropic donations are nearing the billion-dollar mark and tally up as impressive and eclectic, with an emphasis on paying it forward. “There’s no shortage of worthwhile organizations,” Mr. Cooperman said. “As you get more visibility, more people come to you and you’ve got to discern.” The Coopermans are reluctant to talk about specific figures out of an abundance of modesty, but research and records tell the story.

One of the most visible signs of their generosity is evident to patients, staff, and visitors at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, where the gleaming Cooperman Family Pavilion opened a few years ago after a gift of $25 million. The Coopermans also donated an equal amount to Boca Raton Regional Hospital in Florida. And the family will have its name added to the soon-to-debut center of the Jewish Services for the Developmentally Disabled, also in Livingston, after a $2 million gift. Birthright Israel benefited from a $20 million bequest, while the state’s premier arts venue, New Jersey PAC in Newark, received $20 million. JCC MetroWest and Daughters of Israel, both in West Orange, were recipients of $6 million and $1 million respectively.

Being a hands-on guy, Mr. Cooperman also supported Meals on Wheels in his old Bronx neighborhood. He and his wife continue as enthusiastic backers of the ECLC in Chatham, where Toby Cooperman spent 35 years working with neurologically impaired children. And they support lesser-known charities, such as the Songs of Love Foundation, which uses volunteers to customize lyrics and music for hospitalized kids with severe or terminal illnesses, and the Horatio Alger Association, which grants aid to those who’ve endured great hardship growing up.

To be sure, there are other organizations, boards, and trusteeships on Mr. Cooperman’s roster, but the one area that attracts a great deal of his focus is higher education. In addition to the more than $30 million given to Hunter, a comparable amount has gone to Columbia. But his boldest venture in underwriting the future of students, mainly those in underserved areas and from inner cities, has evolved through the Cooperman College Scholars program. And it’s especially gratifying to him that the first cohort of these high schoolers graduated from college in 2020. Mr. Cooperman funded the initiative with $25 million five years ago, and the results proved so encouraging that he doubled down on the amount. The program is in the process of ramping up to its full potential of 1,000 students.

“35 percent of Newark high school graduates have gone to college, but only 5 per cent manage to graduate,” Mr. Cooperman said. “We set up the program with enough safeguards and support to achieve a 73 percent graduation rate.” Students chosen for the full-tuition scholarships must take an on-campus prep course to acquaint them with university life and its expectations. Mr. Cooperman also has assembled a support staff, under the leadership of Twinkle Morgan, to administer the program.

The Cooperman Scholars Class of 2020 Memory Book tells it all in words and pictures. A group photo shows Mr. and Mrs. Cooperman surrounded by a sea of recipients. Even more telling than the exuberant pictures are the personal statements of growth from the students. This one from Rosemarie Archer, who attended Brandeis University, could well serve as reflective of their confidence: “My mother sat me down, asking me, ‘Tamika [her middle name] tell me why you are ashamed of yourself?’ … I felt both the shame of who I was and the shame that I could not accept that person. Now I look in the mirror and taste my new flavor, knowing that there is no use in being an average person. … Being different is my advantage because I am open-minded to change and flexible to accomplish my goals. So go ahead and ask me where I am from, and I will surely say, without hesitation, ‘Trinidad’. I am the forever growing, forever changing dish with my own flavor, my own taste of me.”

But “not everybody should go to college for liberal arts,” Mr. Cooperman said. “Some people are going to become carpenters, plumbers and what have you. We want to make sure the kids have the proper aptitude and the proper attitude.” And despite his contributions to higher education, he does not think it should become entirely free, as the College for All legislation proposes. He prefers the low-cost rates he enjoyed as an undergrad.  Free college “is just not practical,” he said. The $24 he paid for a semester at Hunter is now $6,000, but it still is considered a bargain.

The Cooperman playbook on wealth contains essentially four elements that its author “figured out many years ago.” The short form is: “you can spend it on yourself; you can give it to your kids; you can give it to the government; or you can recycle it back to society.

“The first is pleasure yourself — buy boats, buy art, buy homes,” he said. “I don’t collect art; I missed that game. I never quite understood it. The art you see on our walls is the art that Toby and I appreciate. I also come from the school of thought that material possessions bring with them aggravation.” And it’s not an image Mr. Cooperman has cultivated, coming by it naturally as the son of a Bronx plumber who never made more than $25,000 annually and died of a heart attack helping a friend lug a sink upstairs. To emphasize his practicality, he mentioned trading in his 20-year-old Lexus for a Hyundai and said that when he and his wife went to Florida, pre-covid, they flew economy class. And when the couple took a cruise, also pre-covid, he would remain tethered to the cell phone, never far from decision-making.

“The second thing you can do with money is give it to your children,” Mr. Cooperman continued. “But if you have a lot of money — and I have accumulated a lot of money — giving all of it to your kids is a mistake because you deprive them of self-achievement, number one, and morally it’s not the right thing to do, in my opinion.

“The third thing you can do with money is give it to the government. Only a schnook gives money to the government you don’t have to give. You pay your taxes as a citizen, but you don’t give them more than they’re supposed to get.” And although he says he eschews politics, Mr. Cooperman’s comments on the subject have attracted attention in recent years as much for their pungency as for the objects of his scorn. In a letter to Barack Obama, he accused the then-president of promoting class warfare by targeting “the 1 percent” as perpetrators of wealth inequality and shirking their fair share of taxes. More recently, he jousted with Senator Elizabeth Warren, declining her invitation to speak at a committee hearing on the subject, claiming it would serve as nothing more than political theater. In insisting that he wants to pay his fair share, even if it’s at a rate of 50 percent, Mr. Cooperman says he voted for Joe Biden because Donald Trump’s conduct “was absolutely disgraceful,” although he is more in accord with Trump’s fiscal policies.

And ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, “the fourth thing you do with money is recycle it back into society and make the world a better place,” he said. “I think that’s noble. And here he quotes Pablo Picasso: “The purpose of life is to find your gift. The meaning of life is to give it away.” And Mr. Cooperman found his gift. “It was at the very tail end of college — I came to Wall Street.”

And it’s the gift that keeps giving.

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