Warren Hellman, the San Francisco investor and former president of Lehman Brothers whose relentless energy and vast fortune invigorated Bay Area enterprise and enabled thousands of its residents to sing, dance and disseminate the news, died on December 18 from complications of leukemia. He was 77.
Among Hellman’s countless charitable recipients were the San Francisco Ballet, the San Francisco Free Clinic and the nascent Bay Citizen online journalism site. Locally, he was a regular financial contributor to KWMR community radio and played a significant role in the creation of the nonprofit Marin Media Institute.
His seemingly endless philanthropy was driven in part by an equally limitless cache of personal interests, including a deep love of the outdoors and an admiration for all things bluegrass. Perhaps the most publicized of his achievements was the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which he founded in 2001 and remains one of the largest annual music festivals in the country.
“Warren had this saying: ‘Nothing succeeds like excess,’” said John Osterweis, a Stinson Beach resident and close family friend. “He was definitely obsessive about whatever it was he was interested in.”
Yet it was Hellman’s humor and humanity that often warmed those closest to him. “He had the deepest repertoire of mildly inappropriate jokes,” recalled his daughter Tricia in an email. Towards the end of his illness he took to introducing himself to others as “Luke Emia” and referring to his chemo medicine as “Retuxif**k.”
Frederick Warren Hellman was born on July 25, 1934 in Manhattan to Ruth and Marco F. Hellman, a wealthy couple who were not, as often thought, tied to the similarly named mayonnaise franchise. Marco was a successful investment banker and Ruth descended from a long line of prosperous California wool
Hellman was a precocious child who enjoyed flouting authority at an early age. When the family moved to San Francisco at the beginning of World War II, Ruth enrolled him in the San Rafael Military Academy with hopes that it would provide discipline.
Hellman later attended Lowell High School in San Francisco, graduating with enough credentials to matriculate at the University of California, Berkeley, and then, after a two-year stint in the army, at Harvard Business School.
On the return from a trip to Europe with college friends Hellman met and fell in love with a young ballet dancer named Chris. “And that was the beginning of their story,” Tricia wrote. “Love at first sight, floating on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.” Within a year he had asked her to marry him.
In 1959, with the ink on his MBA still wet, Hellman landed a coveted position at Lehman Brothers investment bank in New York City. He later divulged that the job was attained in part through a family connection. Nevertheless, many in the firm noted Hellman’s fast pace and quick wit, and by 26 he was named the firm’s youngest partner to date. Thirteen years later, he became its president.
But Hellman was not long for the East Coast milieu, returning to San Francisco in 1980 to build an investment firm with Tully Friedman, a banker at Salomon Brothers. “Though we never discussed it, I think he moved back here because of family root connections,” Tricia wrote. “And also because he wanted a place where he could be creative in business.”
When the firm went viral in 1984 it was based on a distinct market strategy. Rather than acquiring foundering companies only to break them apart and sell them for scrap, Hellman and Friedman instead sought those with healthy cash flows, large reserves of intellectual capital and relatively few hard assets.
Hellman had an eye for spotting potential, but he also knew how to manage—or intentionally not manage—Osterweis noted. “One of the things that made him so successful in business and political issues was his ability to get involved with people and enable them to achieve great success,” he said. “His attitude was, ‘If I’m putting money in I want you to run it.’”
The firm went on to broker the then largest-ever private buyout, acquiring Levi Strauss for $1.6 billion in 1985. It also made significant investments in the Nasdaq Stock Exchange, which it sold in 2007 for a considerable profit.
For all his dealings, Hellman kept his personal life a priority. He was a voracious runner, waking daily at 4:30 a.m. to log 16 miles through the Presidio before going to work. He took part in several endurance races, including an outdoor running and equestrian event known as ride and tie, in which he and Osterweis competed as partners.
In the 1970s he co-founded an acclaimed competitive ski school in Vermont, and later served as president of the United States Ski Team.
Hellman’s fierce competitive streak became readily apparent to anyone who crossed him in sport or business. “Running with Warren was always pleasant unless you made the mistake of getting your shoulder in front of his,” Osterweis said. “Then it became a death run.”
He was also a strict father, constantly urging his children to break from the norm and expecting great things from each of them. “He and Mom were the yin and yang that made our family whole, complementary to each other in so many ways,” Tricia wrote. “Dad set high standards, pushing us to be individuals pursuing our own goals, and Mom embraced those standards and provided the loving nest that held us together.”
Hellman’s lasting love of music, particularly bluegrass, grew with age. He learned to play the five-string banjo as an adult and started a band called The Wronglers. In 2001, out of an admittedly self-serving motive, he founded and sponsored the first annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. The free, three-day event in Golden Gate Park has gained immense popularity in the last decade, attracting over 750,000 attendees per year and featuring glitzy names like Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Steve Earle and Dolly Parton. This year, the city announced it would rename Speedway Meadows, the site of the festival, Hellman Hollow.
In spite of his cancer diagnosis, Hellman remained active in many of his causes until the very end. Earlier this year he spearheaded negotiations to reform San Francisco’s aging pension system, which, if successful, could reportedly save the city $1.3 billion over the next ten years. He also began backing research on Alzheimer’s disease, with which Chris has been diagnosed.
Even routine exertions, no matter the pain, were a must. “He kept his commitment to all his activities right up until his death,” Tricia wrote, “going for an early morning walk (against the recommendations of his family and his doctors!!) on the day of his final admission to the hospital, playing his newest song, ‘The Big Twang Theory’, on the banjo for the medical staff at UCSF, and doing his Egyptian pose while rolling down the hall with his IV pole.”
Warren Hellman is survived by his wife, Patricia Christina “Chris” Hellman; son Marco “Mick” Hellman; daughters Frances Hellman, Judith Hellman and Patricia Hellman Gibbs; his sister, Nancy Hellman Bechtle; and 12 grandchildren.