Out of downtown: Wealthy financier Warren Hellman has crossed his big-business allies to help progressive causes
Warren Hellman represents San Francisco's political and economic past. And maybe — as his intriguing actions of recent years suggest — its future.
This guy is a rich (in all senses of the word) and compelling figure who stands alone in this town. And even though his leadership role in downtown political circles has often placed him at odds with the Guardian, Hellman consented to a series of in-depth interviews over the past six months.
"Our family has been here since early in the 19th century, so we had real roots here," Hellman told us. His great-grandfather founded Wells Fargo and survived an assassination attempt on California Street by a man who yelled, "Mr. Hellman, you've ruined my life," before shooting a pistol and barely missing.
The Hellman family has been solidly ruling class ever since, rich and Republican, producing a long line of investment bankers like Warren.
Yet the 72-year-old comes off as more iconoclast than patrician, at least partly because of the influence of his irreverent parents, particularly his mother, Ruth, who died in 1971 in a scuba-diving accident in Cozumel, Mexico, at the age of 59. "She was entirely nuts," Hellman said, going on to describe her World War II stint as a military flier in the Women's Auxiliary Service Pilots and other colorful pursuits. "She just loved people, a little like I do. She collected people."
Hellman grew up wealthy and cultured, but he also attended public schools, including Grant Grammar School and Lowell High School. In between, the young troublemaker did a stint at San Rafael Military Academy — "reform school for the rich," as he called it — for stunts such as riding his horse to Sacramento on a whim.
After doing his undergraduate work at UC Berkeley, Hellman got his MBA from Harvard and went on to become, at the age of 26, the youngest partner ever at the prestigious Manhattan investment firm Lehman Bros. He developed into an übercapitalist in his own right and eventually returned home from New York and founded Hellman and Friedman LLC in San Francisco in 1984, establishing himself as the go-to financier for troubled corporations.
"He is really one of the pioneers of private equity," said Mark Mosher, a longtime downtown political consultant and the executive director of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's California Commission on Jobs and Economic Growth, on which Hellman sits.
Hellman became what Business Week called "the Warren Buffett of the West Coast," a man of extraordinary wealth and power. Among other accomplishments, Hellman took Levi Strauss private, recently made billions of dollars in profits selling DoubleClick to Google, and manages the assets of the California public employee retirement funds (CalPERS and CalSTRS), which are among the largest in the world.
Like many financial titans, Hellman has always been a generous philanthropist, giving to the arts, supporting schools in myriad ways, and funding the San Francisco Foundation and the San Francisco Free Clinic (which his children run). He vigorously competes in marathons and endurance equestrian events, often winning in his age bracket. And he has his humanizing passions, such as playing the five-string banjo and creating the popular Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.
But he's also been a prime facilitator of downtown's political power, which regularly flexes its muscle against progressive causes and still holds sway in the Mayor's Office and other city hall power centers.
Hellman founded, funds, and is a board member of the Committee on Jobs, which is perhaps the city's most influential downtown advocacy organization. Hellman and his friends Don Fisher, the founder of the Gap, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein also started SFSOS, which now wages the most vicious attacks on left-of-center candidates and causes.