Chris Abele has improved Milwaukee in ways few realize, but he's not everything he pretends to be.
This article appeared in the February 2005 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
During the spring of 2004 , Chris Abele held court at Bella’s Caffe several times a week, his gray Jaguar coup parked down the block in the “No Parking” zone in front of the multi-tenant building housing his headquarters. His office occupied a comfortable second-floor suite bathed in natural light, but it was at Bella’s that Abele entertained the appeals of those who sought his largesse, or that of his billionaire father’s Argosy Foundation.
Arts groups and social service agency officials, even a former aide to the governor clutching a business plan and eager to re-invent himself as the director of a new not-for-profit appeared hat in hand. Since Abele came to Milwaukee a decade ago, he has distributed millions of philanthropic dollars, much of it from behind a cup of coffee.
The sign on Bella’s counter advised patrons to move along so that someone else could use their table, but the rule was never applied to Abele, who brought scores of new customers to the corner coffee shop. In fact, it was possible to find him meeting with one grant-seeker while another fidgeted nervously nearby.
No one would have found Milwaukee’s late great philanthropist, the beloved Jane Pettit, doing business this way. Like many of the city’s current major philanthropists, she preferred stealth giving, furthering benevolent causes with gifts labeled anonymous, the details negotiated by her professional staff in private.
But Christopher Abele didn’t shy away from the limelight. He seemed to crave it. Even when he wasn’t planning a sit-down discussion, he’d use Bella’s as a very public meeting place, something he did one day early last summer when a sedate set of middle-aged women waited inside the door for him to arrive. When Abele galloped up the stairs in his well-tailored suit and greeted them, arms wide and effusing enthusiasm, they surrendered to his charm. Laughing and chattering like school girls, they followed him out the door.
“He’s one of the best things to happen to Milwaukee in a long time,” says Mary Louise Mussoline, vice president for institutional development at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. “I don’t know anyone who isn’t charmed by him,” says Linda Davis, chairman of the Donor’s Forum. “This is an inherently kind man.”
But some of Milwaukee’s male CEOs remain decidedly uncharmed, skeptical about Abele’s intentions and his veracity, believing that what seems too good to be true usually is. “They’ve taken a wait-and-see approach,” says Mary Ellen Stanek, chief investment officer for Baird Advisors Inc. and an Abele admirer. As chair of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, she and the club’s record-setting $59 million endowment drive (which Abele co-chaired) benefited from a personal $5 million gift from Abele and his wife.
Despite his goatee and professional garb, Abele seems younger than his 38 years. That doesn’t help inspire confidence, nor does his proclivity for one-man debates -thinking out loud, suggesting possibilities, then shooting them down himself, or his occasional interjection, “I know this is going to sound sophomoric” but then saying it anyway.
His introduction to many locals was even less auspicious. “He rode into Dodge, guns ablazing, brusque, aggressive and irreverent,” says Les Muma, Fiserve Inc. chief executive officer, recounting how Abele trained his sights on the largest and most influential philanthropic organization in the state, the conservative $600 million Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and announced he was here to even things out and advance a liberal agenda.
He’s been back-peddling ever since, blaming the media for making it sound as if he was “on a jihad against the Bradley Foundation” when, he says, he’s actually a free-market guy himself.
The entire incident was Chris Abele’s youth writ small, full of false starts and high expectations that never seemed to pan out. But in Milwaukee, his luck seemed to turn. And soon he was everywhere. “He’s ubiquitous,” says Anthony Petullo, who runs his own family foundation in Milwaukee and for a time was considered by some to be Abele’s mentor.
By accident or intent, says Petullo, Abele arrived in Milwaukee in 1994 to find a city with its good-old-boy network decimated by corporate mergers, moves and bankruptcies. “You can practically count the major corporate leaders who can make a significant impact on one hand now,” Petullo adds, explaining that Abele saw the leadership void and seized the opportunity. “In New York City, with a similar-sized foundation, you’re not quite as important.”
Since then, the son of Massachusetts’ John E. Abele, the 36th richest man in the country and 76th richest in the world (according to Forbes magazine), has taken Milwaukee by storm. Despite the city’s aversion to change and its reluctance to embrace newcomers, checkbook-in-hand Christopher Seton Abele has become a celebrity in an egalitarian city that tolerates few.
Even if miracles didn’t run in the family (the first American-born Roman Catholic saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Abele says, was an ancestor on his mother’s side), his accomplishments would be remarkable. A good 20 years younger than most of his predecessors, Abele chairs five of the 13 important arts, civic and social service boards on which he sits.
“And yet he’s a mystery,” says Petullo. In fact, the mere mention of Abele’s name evokes a single, recurrent question: Why would a guy who could live anywhere in the world and do anything he wants settle in Milwaukee with the announced intention of doing good?
The Philanthropist’s Debut
Chris Abele showed up on the city’s philanthropic radar in 1997. The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, home of the city’s symphony, opera and First Stage Children’s Theater, was undergoing a major interior renovation. The $20 million project was nearing completion when a young stranger walked into the executive director’s office, announced he liked what was being done and deposited a $52,000 check from the Argosy Foundation.
No one knew who he was. Abele had spent eight years bouncing from college to college, but at age 30, he seemed ready to settle down. “At some point, he had an awakening to the peculiarities of his fate… and the Argosy money,” says artist Oliver Benson, a longtime friend.
But the members of the Marcus Center’s board of directors had never heard of the foundation created by Abele’s father, a co-founder of medical device manufacturer Boston Scientific Corp. So they sent their
youngest member, investment banker David Radtke, to take their benefactor to lunch to find out who he was.
“What you see with Chris is what you get,” reported Radtke, who now considers Abele a “good friend. He’s a bright, intelligent contributor to the community and… I think he has sunk very deep roots into
Radtke eventually chaired the Marcus Center’s board; Abele joined and ran its facilities committee. “He’s very concerned with how well an organization is run, how efficient it is, and he challenges it to work harder, do better… think outside the box,” says Paul Mathews, current Marcus Center president.
When the design for a new kids’ stage on the Marcus grounds wasn’t as good as Abele thought it could be, he convinced the board to keep at it, and he picked up the tab for the additional design work, says Mathews. Then Abele contributed $136,000 (half of the cost) toward its construction.
This time, the money came not from Argosy but directly from Abele and his wife, Dacy. Abele often credited his personal giving to CSA Philanthropy, the name on the sign outside his office, although there is no such foundation and hence no public accounting for this philanthropy.
On the Marcus Center board, Abele’s greatest contributions have been strategic, not financial, says Mathews, recounting one brainstorming session where Abele lamented the center’s poor exterior lighting, which he saw as a marketing problem. At Abele’s suggestion (and at his expense), the board hired a New York lighting designer. Abele has promised to consider funding the entire cost of the project, and in the future, arts patrons will merely have to follow the light to find Milwaukee’s cultural mecca.
Radtke also recruited Abele to serve on the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, while Edie Brengel Radtke, his wife, who later chaired Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, enlisted Abele for hers. Soon, philanthropy was Abele’s full-time job. He tackled it with the industry and optimism of a successful entrepreneur. A voracious reader, he became a student of “best practices,” did his homework and never missed a meeting. He pushed his nonprofit peers to never settle for less than the best in personnel, programs and performance. And though he listened carefully, then respectfully asked questions, his energy wasn’t universally admired.
On the basis of their first few meetings, Jeff Snell, then development vice president for the Boys and Girls Clubs and later its president, considered Abele “the epitome of a new generation of young philanthropists who want their fingerprints all over everything they touch.”
Complains another veteran nonprofit fund-raiser: “His philanthropy comes with strings attached; he doesn’t just demand results, he crosses the line and comes to help run the organization.” Fiserve’s Muma accepted Abele’s explanation that he needed to “be involved to control the outcomes” generated by his donations, but local philanthropy consultants dispute that. They cite numerous examples where donors set up procedures to monitor performance without running an organization themselves. And many foundations, including the Bradley, prohibit officials from serving on any nonprofit board they support.
So when Abele invited Snell to dinner just before Christmas in 1998, Snell may have thought he was just a wealthy busybody, but he went anyway.
Over entrees at the Hyatt, Snell asked Abele whether any of the Boys and Girls Clubs’ programs interested him. Snell had spent two fruitless years trying to sell a foundation or philanthropist on funding an outcome study examining the club’s impact on the disadvantaged kids it served. So he was a little stunned when Abele asked how much such a study would cost, then mused, “If you do that, other Boys and Girls Clubs across the country will be interested.”
Snell was even more surprised when he saw tears welling up in Abele’s eyes as he took out his checkbook and wrote in the entire amount: $100,000. “Merry Christmas,” Snell remembers Abele saying as he passed the check across the table. “Then, all weepy,” Snell says Abele added,” ‘Man, I loved doing that.’ ”
That night, Snell told his wife he had been wrong about Christopher Abele. “This guy’s heart is in the right place,” he said.
“If you look over the entire 106-year history of Milwaukee’s Boys and Girls Clubs for one seminal moment,” Snell says now, “that was it.” The first year of the study showed that club members had fewer truancy problems, got better grades and had fewer run-ins with the juvenile justice system. Eighty-six percent of members said they had learned to say “no to things that seemed wrong” by participating in club programs. Inspired by the Milwaukee study, a national foundation, Phillip Morris, spent $1 million replicating it from San Antonio to Hartford. “If you talk about the strategic leverage of a grant,” says Snell, “that’s it in my book.”
But Abele’s gift did even more. “It changed the way not-for-profits in Milwaukee work,” says club chair Stanek. It’s no longer just tax deductibility that matters. The old “patronage without questions” is gone. Now, she says, “There’s pressure to show results.”
Christopher Abele didn’t just get it right, he’d hit a home run.
Like Father, Like Son?
“What Chris does better than anything,” says Donor’s Forum’s chair Davis, “is transfer the best practices he learned running his own businesses to the not-for-profit sector.” Mark C. Hanson, president of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, agrees: “He has this incredible expertise in both.”
Abele’s fellow board members often say the same – that Abele told them he learned how to be a good philanthropist by being a good businessman first. But Abele’s approach, like his assets, really came from his father.
In 1990, the senior Abele, the scientist-entrepreneur who’d been a pioneer in the field of less invasive surgery, pulled back from his corporate career and became a student of philanthropy. John Abele refuses to give interviews even when he is the topic (he “respectfully declined” to give one for this story), but he participated in a teleconference last spring that provides valuable insights into his thinking.
A panelist for a rather mundane discussion of “Trust and Transparency in Elite Philanthropy,” the senior Abele said that “as much as half of the $240+ billion donated to philanthropy each year in the United States “does not actually better society but may actually have a negative impact.”
Event moderator H. Peter Karoff explained later: “An awful lot of giving is done without much thought. Most people wouldn’t say it has a negative effect…. John’s statement… is a radical one, but some giving really doesn’t enable people to move out of their situation, and some not-for-profits have a vested interest in a problem continuing.”
The founder and chairman of The Philanthropic Initiative and a trailblazer in helping wealthy families practice effective philanthropy, Karoff met John Abele some 15 years ago, the same way the Marcus Center board met his son. “Out of the blue, John sent us some money because he liked what we were doing,” says Karoff, who has advised the Abele family ever since.
John Abele had met his future business partner, Peter M. Nicholas, at a children’s soccer game a dozen years earlier, when his eldest son, Chris, was just 12. Nicholas and Abele were unlikely partners from the start, the Boston Globe wrote later, describing Nicholas as “a focused businessman with a Wharton MBA” and Abele as “a science-minded thinker who studied physics and philosophy at Amherst.” Dissatisfied with their jobs, they launched Boston Instruments, which sold steerable catheters for gall bladder surgery. They took the company public in 1992 to buy out the 20 percent stake owned by Abbott Laboratories but kept most of the stock themselves.
By January 2004, their combined holdings, including various family trusts, totaled $9.9 billion. Nicholas and Abele “built an enviable medical products company,” the Globe continued, but it was another man, the company’s current chief executive officer, who untangled “a series of business problems” and got the drug-coated stent marketed, which made their stock soar more than 400 percent between 2001 and 2004.
Unlike Nicholas, who doled out charitable gifts in large lump sums, including $72 million to Duke University, John Abele proceeded slowly. He was building his family foundation’s capacity to invest in highly effective, strategic ways.
The senior Abele created the Argosy Foundation in 1993, but it wasn’t until last fall that the foundation’s five trustees (Chris; his parents, John and Mary; his brother Alexander, 35; and sister Jeneye, 32) approved Argosy’s bylaws and formalized its focus: on the arts, education, environment and health and human services.
At the end of November 2004, Argosy had $35.2 million in assets, according to the foundation’s chief operating officer. In the preceding year, it had given away $15 million. Once the entire $1 billion earmarked for the foundation is transferred to it, the IRS will require it to give away $50 million a year, says Lawrence Silverstein, the attorney advising the trustees.
Those funds will come from the Abele Family Charitable Trust, which contained 69 million shares of Boston Instruments stock worth $2.5 billion on December 20, 2004. One-third or more will go to Argosy, Chris Abele explains; another third will be shared by the three Abele siblings. The remainder will be used to establish what is known in the investment business as a “family office,” a firm that manages the financial affairs for a single wealthy clan.
While Argosy seems destined to have the financial clout Chris Abele promised Milwaukee early on, it is unlikely to be as liberal since John Abele’s track record portends more conservative, even libertarian
Case in point: One of the senior Abele’s favorite causes is also one of the Bradley Foundation’s: the Foundation for Academic Standards and Tradition, which works to “restore both high academic standards and humanistic study of the liberal arts in the Western tradition.” And the elder Abele has almost single-handedly sustained the equally conservative Concord Review, a small quarterly that publishes exemplary work by high school students and supports traditional American values like respect for hard work but has been condemned by some in the education establishment as “intellectually elitist.”
Confusion arises, however, because people don’t understand the difference between Argosy’s giving and Chris Abele’s personal CSA Philanthropy, says Snell, who became Argosy chief operating officer in August. Chris Abele has backed Democratic political candidates like Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett for governor, attorney Matt Flynn for Congress and Sen. John Kerry for president, something Argosy never would, nor could, legally do.
Adding to the confusion over Argosy’s political inclinations are gifts worth nearly a half-million dollars to Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, an organization generally considered “too liberal” for many corporate givers but on whose board the younger Abele served.
Of course, Argosy’s philanthropy reflects the interests of all of its trustees, including the music education programs supported by Chris’ younger brother, classical music composer and Vermont resident Alex Abele, and environmental causes, especially in Colorado, where his sister, Jeneye Abele Bolton, has lived. Whatever the area of interest, Argosy’s mission is to “support creative, entrepreneurial approaches that help people help themselves,” programs that have the potential to become “self-sustaining… can be replicated… and inspire others to contribute in their own ways,” just as Chris Abele’s personal contribution to the Boys and Girls Clubs’ study had.
“The apple really didn’t fall far from the tree” when it comes to Chris and his father, says Snell. “Whatever the project, the question is always, how do you make it better? Make it… a national model?”
Center of the Universe
The Pfister’s Grand Ballroom was packed, a sea of tables pressing against the walls. For years, The Business Journal’s “Power Breakfasts” featured the city’s most prominent CEOs, but none drew the crowd Chris Abele did last March as president and chief executive officer of the Argosy Foundation.
Alongside Milwaukee’s business leaders, an army from the city’s not-for-profits came looking for the secrets to grant-getting success, and you could hear the notepads slap the tables as Abele began.
“When I am asked to speak outside of Milwaukee, I always say I am Chris Abele and I live in the best city in North America…. The people work hard… they have phenomenal civic spirit…. It’s 7:30 a.m. and there are 600 people here to hear some goofball from out of town! That’s why I love this city,” he said, basking in the attention.
“What am I doing here?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m running the family foundation, Argosy, worth approximately a billion dollars now, but eventually it could be significantly more than that.” He told the grant-seekers to make him think their project was “the best use ever” for his money and to “underpromise and overdeliver.” Then he talked businessman to business exec about his real estate company, CSA Commercial, a firm that would “never overpromise and underdeliver….”
There are four kinds of philanthropists, according to Renata Rafferty, nationally known author on the subject. The quid pro quo giver includes the CEO who contributes to another CEO’s charity. Expecting the favor to be returned, he or she never really questions the impact the gift will have.
In Milwaukee, reciprocity giving is a major funding mechanism for the United Way and United Performing Arts Fund drives. But even when the city’s CEOs put the full-court press on Chris Abele to join their exclusive “$100,000” club, he demurred.
A number of the CEOs who asked, sure they would receive, took it personally when Abele didn’t contribute.
“He snubs them uniformly,” says one veteran fund-raiser. “He’s not a team player.” Abele knew the “black tie people” were unhappy with him, but he stayed the course. He never “needed to belong to the clique,” says his old prep school pal, Oliver Benson. “It’s not about that. It’s about accomplishing something.”
There, too, Abele was a chip off the old block. In 1997, Business Week described his father as part of a group of new philanthropists who “shun most conventional nonprofits as too diffuse, politically correct and less effective” and “invent their own.”
“If you’re saying that Chris doesn’t play as others had hoped, that’s fair,” says Argosy COO Snell. “But he gets a lot more done” and he “makes a convincing case that united community appeals are an outdated model, irrelevant for activist philanthropists” like him, who fund member agencies directly. “That’s more efficient than having his gift go through an administrative haircut” before it gets to the organization, Snell adds.
Rafferty’s second kind of philanthropist is the social conscious giver, who contributes out of a deep belief in a nonprofit’s mission, trusting in blue-chip charities instead of personally monitoring results. The social or vanity giver is motivated more by personal visibility, prestige and high-profile contacts than by the potential for social change. But the final type of donor, the true philanthropist, is a careful “investor” whose ultimate goal is to change the world – or some small part of it — for the better and who “insists on knowing how their contribution will have a profound, lasting and measurable impact.”
That is exactly the way Business Week described John Abele, saying he “treats charities like a business, demanding accountability and efficiency from the not-for-profit sector never strongly associated with either trait.” And in some ways, that describes his son, too.
But many individuals active in the nonprofit sector agree with one foundation head that “a great percent of Chris Abele’s giving is in the category of the vanity giver.” A major corporate CEO is harsher: “When he does [participate], he grandstands…. The Kellners, Uihleins and Lubars all give away a great deal of money every year, and they don’t have to get their picture in the paper. Maybe it’s just immaturity with Chris.”
They and others cite a litany of examples. One involves two $100,000 Argosy Foundation gifts Chris arranged. Rather than the normal protocol, which would be to recognize the foundation as the donor, Chris took credit, too. The 2003 Milwaukee Art Museum annual report lists “Christopher Abele on behalf of the Argosy Foundation” (even though he gave his own smaller gift); the 2003 Boys and Girls Clubs annual report reads similarly. Seeing Abele’s name alongside Argosy’s looked like a quest for attention or at least a need for approval, especially when two larger gifts, $25 million each, remained anonymous.
Abele is like “a moth to the flame,” says a friend who warned him that “publicity can be a double-edged sword.” When the friend advised Abele to back off a bit, Abele protested that he could “leverage” his celebrity status to advance causes he supports. But it’s hard to see what leverage Abele gets from saying that the one thing he really likes about Milwaukee is that it’s not pretentious, then drops names relentlessly himself. Talk to Abele for a while and pretty soon he’s recounting how he went to Cuba and met with Castro, how he’s importing the entire Yale Drama School faculty as directors for the Milwaukee Shakespeare Company he co-founded or how he talked Tom Barrett into running for mayor. (“Yeah, maybe him and 300 other people,” says a Barrett adviser.)
“He’ll say, ‘George and I did this,’ ” says the friend, “and he’s talking about George Soros [the investor-philanthropist-Democratic activist and 28th richest man in the world]. Well, it was a ‘meet and greet.’ Nobody cares. He doesn’t need to do that. But he wants to be considered important.”
Milwaukee “won’t tolerate Chris Abele’s need for recognition long,” predicts one veteran fund-raiser. “He’s done a lot of good, but this will grow old.”
Meanwhile, Abele’s high profile and easy accessibility have begun to “trouble” Argosy’s Snell. “He needs to ratchet it down a little,” says Snell, explaining that questionable people have begun “just dropping in” looking for money.
The Hands-on Manager
Skeptics say Chris Abele gets involved in high-profile executive searches for non-profits because he’s a vanity giver who wants to be “in the hunt.” Certainly, he’s been on some important ones: hiring a new chancellor for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and new presidents for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.
In UWM’s case, Abele put a $120,000 Argosy grant on the table to help recruit a higher-caliber chancellor. But “he didn’t get his guy,” says an insider, explaining that Abele “fell hook, line and sinker” for an applicant who was subsequently discredited.
Abele had never been a contributor to the symphony before he served on its search committee. When his colleague from an art museum committee, Judy Jorgensen, had been elected MSO chair, he’d called to congratulate her. Jorgensen says Abele told her he wanted to help her “become the best chair the symphony ever had.” She promised not to ask him for money, but when the symphony’s director left, she called him for help in finding a replacement.
The search committee interviewed local candidates and had settled on one when Abele says he literally pounded the table. MSO conductor Andreas Delfs agreed with Abele that the committee was settling for less than the best. “Chris wanted someone who was going to take the symphony by the tail and take it to a new level,” Jorgensen says, and he provided a $100,000 Argosy grant for a national search.
While philanthropy expert Rafferty says recruiting talented leadership is exactly what a true philanthropist does, Abele’s critics say he did it to advance his own position in the organizations involved. Within 18 months, he was chair of the symphony board, a position that usually requires years of contributions and board service.
In fact, Jorgensen admits that when she asked Abele to lead the organization, she didn’t even know whether he had season tickets. (He didn’t.) “We have never elected such a newcomer,” she admits, “but we are at an unusual phase in our history. We need an enthusiastic, forward-thinking leader who’s not afraid to take risks.”
On the national level, Abele seems drawn to small organizations with inordinately high profiles, boards where he can have a big influence but make worthwhile contacts. The only male board member, Abele chairs Women for Women International, a group featured frequently on “Oprah” for its efforts in rebuilding war-ravaged countries with micro-economic loans made to the local women. He is a board member of the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights, a relatively small nonprofit that shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. He’s also been involved with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America headquarters in Washington, D.C., where President Roxanne Spillett said Abele enjoys kibitzing with congressional representatives.
Yet in each case, Abele epitomized Rafferty’s true philanthropist, growing the capacity of the organizations involved. He revolutionized the way the Boys and Girls Clubs of America interacts with locals with a quarter-million dollar information technology grant. At Women for Women in Washington, D.C., founder Zainab Salbi says most donors “are only interested in sexy projects. They want to go to Rowanda,” but Abele helped craft a strategic plan, hire professional staff, create a marketing program and devise a direct-mail campaign that doubled revenue.
Physicians for Human Rights Executive Director Leonard Rubenstein says Abele “loves” the Boston-based group’s mission, “but his concern is, ‘Are we setting goals? Being accountable?’ Chris says, ‘You have to show people you’re thoughtful and rigorous and demonstrate you get results.’ ”
That was exactly what Abele needed to do, too. Like the nonprofits he advised, he wanted to win the approval of a major philanthropist- in Abele’s case, his father. “Chris always said his father felt he was never successful at anything,” says friend Benson. “I think that explains Chris’ workaholic desire to do well.”
Abele’s inability to distinguish himself in his father’s eyes may have fueled his constant need for approval, which he sought in other places, including Milwaukee’s limelight. But he also found the perfect proving ground for another chance. “In Boston, he’d always be the son of John Abele,” says Theoharis Constantine Theoharis, Abele’s former Harvard instructor. “He had to strike out on his own, away from the inevitable comparisons to his father. And he had a certain excitement about what he could do in Milwaukee.”
Indeed, Benson says Abele saw great possibilities in Milwaukee. He’d made the case when he convinced Benson to move to Milwaukee five years ago. “There’s more hope here,” Benson remembers Abele telling him. “It’s in the air. On the East Coast, it’s in the back room or in a sealed container. In Boston, everything is locked in place. All you can do is build the replacement part. But here, people are still creating.”
And that was what Chris Abele did. He created a new identity for himself as the thoughtful, rigorous philanthropist who gets results. But “if you dig deeply, the only thing you’ll see is a kid who wants his father’s love,” says the Abele friend. “There’s a huge issue there with his dad, the source of all the money, prestige and a lot of the pain. John Abele’s not an emotional guy who will say, ‘Well done, son.” It’s ‘You could have done this….'”
Beyond the Public Persona
When I called Chris Abele for an interview, he suggested we meet at Bella’s. He welcomed the opportunity to talk, just as he had with a handful of other reporters who’d profiled him, and the interview lasted more than two hours. He was friendly and open, ricocheting across a dozen topics.
“I hate it when strangers come up to me in a restaurant, act like they know me and ask for things,” he confided. Two months had passed since his speech at the Pfister, and the public persona was wearing on him.
It wasn’t just strangers he had to brush off. It included people who considered themselves friends. When they asked for contributions for their favorite charities, he was no longer the amiable guy they knew. “He just erupted,” says a former dinner partner, a philanthropist herself. “He’s a very fragile, volatile individual,” says a CEO Abele reproached for asking. Like many others, they refused to speak on the record for fear of making matters worse.
Over coffee, Abele confessed that he and his father had discussed the need to “manage expectations.” But he was more interested in talking about his adopted city. “The lifers here say to me, ‘Why would you come here?’ They don’t realize how great it is, but as an outsider, I see it,” he said.
“There’s no big-city paranoia in Milwaukee. The asshole quotient is pretty low, and the good people quotient is pretty high. There’s kind of a self-selection. The people for whom Milwaukee is not enough, people who want attention, they leave. So the people who remain are pretty laid-back.”
He said it was “ironic” that the sample story I’d brought him was a profile I’d done of a powerful local businessman whose troubled relationship with his dominant father had driven him to excel. Abele refused to explain, although I learned later that when that story had come out, he’d read it and called the businessman and they’d talked for two hours.
The rest of that first interview went without a hitch. But when I ran into Abele later that afternoon, everything had changed. He’d spoken with his father and his siblings. “The board gives me direction, and they’ve decided we don’t want a story,” he said. “My dad’s this big sort of guy, and they’ve never even done this kind of thing on him.”
Nothing personal, Abele said, even going out of his way to tell my publisher the same thing. But there would be no more interviews, although a month later, he stopped by my table at Bella’s and chatted for 90 minutes. And a week after that, he gave me a tour of his office so that I could see his friend Benson’s intricate artwork infused with religious symbolism. Ninety percent of Benson’s collected works are in
Abele’s possession, making Abele both pal and patron. But near the back of his office, Abele stopped before another artist’s work entitled “Tower of Babel.” “I love this,” he said, explaining that to him, the work symbolized “unfinished ambition.”
After that, Abele even helped me get in touch with Benson, who, just back from some foreign travel, was living in a studio without a phone or electricity when he wasn’t staying at the Abeles’ high-rise apartment overlooking Lake Michigan.
Three months after our interview, John Abele designated Snell, Argosy’s COO, as the foundation’s spokesman, bypassing his son. Recounting how John Abele contacted him about the job, Snell theorized that the senior Abele hired him in part for his politics, “a little to the right of center.” Explained Snell: “I think John thought I’d have a moderating influence on Chris.”
Snell also acted as a middle man, forwarding my request to talk to Chris Abele one more time so he could comment on some questionable things about his background. But Abele refused.
Resume vs. Reality
The National Association for Health Education Center’s newsletter quoted liberally from Chris Abele’s impressive resume last spring: “Chris is co-founder, co-chair and CEO of SteriLogic Waste Systems Inc. in New York,” it said. “He is also co-founder, chair and president of CSA Commercial, a real estate investment” firm headquartered in Milwaukee… “publisher of the Boston Book Review (1997-2000)… a board member of the Harvard Reader’s Guild overseeing editorial content…. Chris received his BA in philosophy and English from Lawrence University and studied at Bennington College, Boston University, Imperial College of London and Harvard… and he serves on 17 boards and committees.”
It was Abele’s typical resume. And like the one he provided this magazine last November, it was not entirely true. To begin with, Abele never graduated from Lawrence University, officials there say. Between the fall of 1986 and June 1994, he’d bounced from college to college, spending the last three years at Lawrence in Appleton, Wisconsin, but he left there a 27-year-old without a degree.
Lawrence English professor Timothy A. Spurgin says Abele “always had this weird energy. Not bad weird. Chris was just always excited about something: books, ideas, music, literature…. He seemed to be in a million things, traveled a lot… read a lot. That’s unusual for an undergraduate.” His focus so scattered, Abele often fell short on follow-through. He was like a starved kid at Old Country Buffet, helping himself to giant servings of everything on the smorgasbord, then not having room to finish anything.
Not surprisingly, Abele was not an A student, says Spurgin. “There are some students who get their education in the classroom and some who don’t. Chris fell into the latter group,” he says.
Abele had spent his freshman year at Bennington College, not far from the family home in Concord, Massachusetts. He played on both the soccer and volleyball teams, officials offer, but they could not comment on “his reason for leaving.” At Boston University, Abele put a security restriction on his records, prohibiting their release. Harvard officials say Abele received credit for just one course, a summer 1992 extension class taught by professor Theoharis on the modern English novel.
London’s Imperial College has “no record of Mr. Abele enrolling as part of any degree program,” says registrar Adrian Thomas, although he may have taken an “informal” offering, such as “a Tai Chi class.”
Even in prep school, schoolmate Benson recalls Abele’s “impressively broad interests: art, philosophy, pop culture, science, math and politics. He played chess, studied classical music, played the keyboard and bass guitar. He ran cross-country and skied.” Concord Academy was an elite private school that catered to wealthy day students like Abele who lived nearby and boarding students like Benson, who’d come from Rhode Island and an old family farmhouse that didn’t have heat in his bedroom. When he and Abele ran off to a science fiction convention in Boston together, Benson remembers, Abele’s parents “weren’t pleased at all.”
The academy was “a very cliquish school,” says Benson. And although Abele’s mother was descended from “an old Boston Brahmin family,” according to another friend, Benson says Abele “wasn’t involved in that at all. He had a great deal of social courage and did his own thing.”
At Harvard, Theoharis says he taught Abele “to have confidence in his taste, impulses and judgment, that they would take him down the right path.” And Abele, he says, taught him to “be courageous and expect good things.” He describes Abele as a shy student who never talked in class but who stayed after every one with “penetrating and relevant questions.” They became “pals,” going to jazz concerts, movies and the contemporary museum together.
After that summer class, Theoharis says Abele hired him to teach an independent study course on Thomas Mann’s novels. Abele completed the coursework, but it was the student’s job to make sure he got credit. Harvard has no record of the course; Lawrence officials refused to say whether they did.
Near the end of that course, Theoharis says he ran into Abele on campus. Abele asked why the professor wasn’t riding his beloved Italian racing bike. Theoharis said it had been stolen, and Abele wrote out a check to cover the professor’s teaching fee and $1,000 more, saying he’d gotten “more than he’d bargained for” out of the class and that Theoharis should buy a new bike.
Abele’s benevolence didn’t end there. When the professor lost his job to budget cuts, Abele replaced his salary with a grant so that Theoharis could translate the works of the seminal Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), a skeptic who wrote openly about his own homosexuality and, according to Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature, “denied or ridiculed traditional Christian values, patriotism and heterosexuality.” The book, the first new translation of Cavafy’s poems in 20 years, is dedicated to Christopher Abele.
Abele and Theoharis crossed paths again in 1997. Theoharis was editing the Boston Book Review, the brainchild of three of his other students in the 1992 summer class. The Review was initially supported by the grandfather of one of the founders, Lucinda Jewell, who had connections to the Standard Oil and Pennsylvania Railroad fortunes. Another student who’d audited the summer course, Greg Carr, acted as publisher from 1994 to 1997.
Carr remains an important figure at Harvard. A 1986 business grad, he co-founded Boston Technology Inc., sold it and became chairman of Prodigy for a time, then founded Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights with a $20 million endowment. Abele often mentioned that he and Carr were publishers of the Review, which made it sound as if the two had done it together when, in fact, Carr’s office says, “They never worked together.” However, Carr did nominate Abele for the Physicians for Human Rights board.
At age 30, after Carr had moved on, Abele became publisher of the Review, the third-largest circulation book review in the country. “He wasn’t involved in day-to-day operations,” says Theoharis, who remained editor, but he “helped tremendously with marketing,” including funding the “Christopher Abele Award for excellence in public disclosure.” The Review presented the 1999 award to PBS-TV show host Charlie Rose at a Cambridge gala that included many of Rose’s former celebrity guests.
Abele was running with the big guys, but when The Boston Globe reported on the event, they still identified him as the “son of Boston Scientific founder John Abele” who’d pledged $3 million to the Review if it could raise $1 million on its own.
One of the younger Abele’s first acts at the Review was creating a not-for-profit parent company to quality for Argosy funding. Abele called it the Harvard Reader’s Guild, then listed it on his resume, too.
Between 1997 and ’99, the Guild/Review received nearly a quarter-million dollars from Argosy, but in 2000, it ceased publication. “There was a change in governance,” says Theoharis, “and Chris and I just left.” Theoharis admits that no one who remained with the Review will speak favorably about either of them, and indeed, former Review President Kiril Stefan Alexandrov, one of the publication’s founders, said things had ended so badly he refused to comment “on the advice” of his attorney. Alexandrov retains rights to the publication’s name.
Abele’s first major philanthropic venture ended in failure, but he never mentioned what he’d learned from it, only lessons learned running his two businesses, implying that his personal philanthropy came from the profits of that success. But those businesses are hardly as substantial as he suggests.
In fact, according to the Registrar of Deeds office last August, Abele’s real estate company, CSA Commercial Inc., owned no properties at all in Milwaukee County, although it had been founded to do just that in January 2001. Steven J. Mech, the former Lawrence frat brother Abele made its president, did not return our calls.
Abele owns the majority of Syracuse, New York-based SteriLogic Waste Systems Inc. but has no experience in operations. Abele’s resume identifies him as SteriLogic’s chairman, chief executive officer and co-founder, but the company says Abele is simply chairman. Chris Kerr is founder, president and chief executive officer.
After getting permission from Abele, Kerr agreed to talk. He said that he and Abele met on a ranch in Wyoming in 1993, a retreat for multiple generations connected with wealthy family-owned businesses. Abele was looking to invest some money, he says. Kerr, a fifth-generation member of the Pittsburg Plate Glass family, had just finished business school, and Abele suggested they go into business together.
After three years and three scrapped business plans, Kerr says they found a “business that will be around pretty much for eternity,” providing hospitals and clinics with collection containers and waste disposal for used needles. The company operates in a small part of the Northeast, but Kerr says sales have increased 30 percent a year, revenue is “in the millions,” and this year, thanks to an idea Abele suggested in their twice monthly phone calls, the firm expanded into Maine and employment will double to 24.
“I’m the hands-on guy,” says Kerr. Chris “has patient capital, but he doesn’t throw in his money and cross his fingers. He keeps his eye on the bottom line like a venture capitalist, and he’s a great strategic thinker.” It was the same way Chris Abele approached his nonprofit investments.
The Big Challenge
As Chris Abele has gotten more involved in nonprofits, business partner Kerr says Abele’s “dialogue with his father has improved greatly.” In fact, says Abele philanthropy adviser Karoff, “the family is thrilled with Chris’ enthusiasm.” It’s rare, he notes, for a second-generation member of a wealthy family to have such a passion for philanthropy.
Karoff says “it’s genes and proper upbringing” that produce an activist philanthropist like Chris, but friend Benson says it’s more than that. Abele’s wife, Sturgeon Bay native Dacy Jirvovetz, has had a very big impact, he says. “It’s funny how she affected him, but she really made him much more into a person who’s committed to doing good.”
A “bright, really down-to-earth Wisconsin girl who’s very, very centered and sure of herself, unlike her husband,” says another friend. “She just wants to be a teacher… and she couldn’t care less whether your tie is a $300 Hermes.”
Abele also shows signs of maturing. By late fall 2004, he was seeking the limelight less. He’d begun awarding Argosy grants anonymously, five totaling nearly $200,000. He had worked behind the scenes on a major civic development, rescuing the $55 million Pier Wisconsin lakefront education center from a certain demise. A public outcry over the proposed structure’s similarities to the nearby Santiago Calatrava-designed Art Museum had threatened to derail it, and its chief donor, Michael Cudahy, said he was leaving town.
Abele provided an $80,000 Argosy grant for a redesign competition that got the project a new look and put it back on track. “That project was dead. His role was absolutely critical,” says Dan Steininger, Milwaukee Harbor Commission president and Catholic Knights head. “I’m his fan…. If he didn’t end that logjam… Milwaukee wouldn’t have a project everyone can embrace.”
Without Christopher Abele, there also would be no Milwaukee Shakespeare company. Theater company Bailystock & Bloom probably would have closed up shop. Milwaukee nonprofits might never have become as results-oriented as they now are.
Milwaukee’s Health Education Center would not have become headquarters for the National Association of Health Education Centers (NAHEC). Abele replaced its volunteer staff with a professional one and turned it into the hub for 40 similar agencies across the country serving more than three million kids a year in an effort to decrease teen pregnancies and improve general health. “I’ve worked with not-for-profits for 35 years, and he’s a real visionary,” says Dave Midland, NAHEC executive director.
Abele’s biggest supporter may be the man who co-chaired the Boys and Girls Clubs’ record endowment campaign with him, retired entrepreneur Marty Stein. Sure, Stein says, “Chris enjoys his celebrity status, but it’s not just about Chris…. He cares about doing what’s right…. Most people who could live anywhere just go to the country club, travel, play cards and never do anything for anybody. But Chris decided not to do that. He’s made people think in new ways about what they should do,” says Stein. “He’s a role model for people who thought of themselves as role models before he got here.”
Chris Abele’s defining test is yet to come, as chairman of the board of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Abele will lead an organization with a shrinking audience, $7.1 million in accumulated debt and a $3 million deficit for the 2003-’04 season, not to mention the cultural changes that have put orchestras in trouble across the country and contributed to the collapse of several.
“That would be a big challenge for anyone,” says Baird’s Stanek. “He’s taking a stake in the village.” Says former board chair Jorgensen: “This time, it’s not just about the money. It will require rethinking everything we do.”
Certainly there are indications that Chris Abele is up to the task. But there are worrisome signs as well. Most individuals taking over a troubled arts group would focus on the challenge on their plate, not look for more. Yet Abele is about to become chair of both the Marcus Center board and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee.
And there’s nothing to say he’ll stop there.
Argosy Foundation Philanthropy
Between December 1, 2002 and December 1, 2004 (the most recent data available), the Argosy Foundation’s national and international total giving exceeded $40 million. Thirty-two Wisconsin groups were beneficiaries. Here is a sample of them.
* Bailystock & Bloom Co.: $180,000
* Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee: $162,501
Children’s Hospital/Foundation/Auxiliary of Wisconsin: $445,976
* Milwaukee Art Museum: $200,000
Milwaukee international Film Festival: $100,000
* Milwaukee River Revitalization Foundation Inc.: $100,000
* Milwaukee Shakespeare company: $910,068
* Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra: $690,000
* National Association of Health
Education Centers (based in Milwaukee): $307,500
1,000 Friends of Wisconsin (environment): $55,000
* Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin: $155,500
Renaissance Theaterworks: $115,000
Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum: $50,000
WisconsinEye Public Affairs Network: $250,000
WUWM Public Radio: $190,800 (including $75,000 for nonprofit PSAs)
Argosy Giving Directly Related to Chris Abele
Boys and Girls Clubs of America: $300,000
* Physicians for Human Rights: $60,311
* Women for Women International: $625,972
* Indicates that Ahclc is a past or present board member.