Griffin’s Covid Year Had Planes, Palm Beach, Philanthropy
(Bloomberg) -- In the early days of the pandemic, Ken Griffin talked with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence about stimulus and fast-tracking Covid therapies. Now, he sees an opening to work with the Biden administration to address a year of lost learning.
“The political party doesn’t matter to me,” said Griffin, 52, who contributed $66 million to Republicans in the last election. “What matters is the receptivity to solving the problem.”
The past 15 months have been busy for the billionaire founder of hedge fund Citadel and market-maker Citadel Securities, as both parts of his business successfully navigated the pandemic-fueled volatility.
Griffin was acutely aware of the “existential and economic threat” posed by the pandemic early on after hearing from employees in China, Citadel Securities’ chief executive officer, Peng Zhao, and an employee who had family in Wuhan.
To combat the work from home challenge, Citadel Securities created a trading outpost in a high-end Palm Beach resort. The firm later profited from the huge influx of retail traders using apps such as Robinhood.
That also meant he spent a day last month being grilled by mostly Democratic House members over his firm’s role in the GameStop frenzy, including some highly confrontational moments.
Griffin is no stranger to the highest level of politics, chatting with Trump and other Wall Street investors last year on ways to reopen the economy and working with various members of government to help during the pandemic. He described some of his efforts in a recent hour-long Zoom interview.
In his own words, he’s been blunt, a nudge, and quite comfortable making a point aggressively, firmly and repeatedly. Oh, and just as in his business life, he hasn’t been very open to the word “no.”
It was a “no” when trying to get a colleague’s family out of Wuhan that got Griffin on the phone with then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year.
Griffin and Pompeo agreed they needed to get as many Americans back home as possible, and one flight wasn’t going to work. To speed along the sometimes slow-moving machinery of government, he wired several million dollars that paid for four planes carrying more than 800 people.
“Learning they had safely landed in America, there’s something so tangible about that,” said Griffin, who along with his partners has donated about $45 million in Covid-related aid.
When the pandemic arrived in the U.S., Griffin got on the phone again with the White House to push for early stimulus payments to workers and contribute ideas that would form Operation Warp Speed. Nick Ayers, who was once Pence’s chief of staff and has known Griffin for 15 years, confirmed his account and described him as a leader of an informal group of private-sector advisers.
Gearing up to manufacture vaccines without knowing whether they’d work was critical as it became clear that Western countries were not going to be able to contain the virus and other solutions needed to happen fast, Griffin said. He and his partners also supported medical research directly through vaccine-developer Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and others.
Sometimes, Griffin received calls for help. In mid-March of last year, he listened while Dan Widawsky, a former Citadel partner who is now NYU Langone’s chief financial officer, vented about some of the obstacles the hospital was facing treating patients, including using remdesivir.
“They could not get the FDA to sign on to accelerating the trials, which I put in a category of, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Griffin said. “We have people dying at a time when they could have access to potentially helpful treatments.”
Griffin deployed staff members to call leaders in Congress and the White House to urge the FDA in this instance to give latitude and flexibility to the nation’s top research institutions.
Not all interactions were confrontational. He said the pandemic also drove home the importance of being able to effectively cut through the country’s extreme partisanship.
“Rather than exhaust your energy in bickering over where you disagree, align your effort with where you do agree and create wins, whether it’s in our city, state or nation,” he said.
It’s this approach that underpins two education initiatives he supported in the past year. With Griffin funding, the nonprofit Saga Education expanded its math tutoring program to an additional 625 students in Chicago, and started offering the same program to 1,000 students in Broward County, Florida. Griffin designated Saga as his charity for the Bloomberg March Madness bracket, though his picks have been lagging.
Griffin, who has a net worth of $22.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, also backed the expansion of at-home internet access to underserved kids in cities. It began with Chicago Connected and is now starting up in South Florida with Miami Connected. These public-private partnerships involve school districts, parents and community-based organizations.
“This has been the most effective cross collaboration that I’ve ever worked on,” said Daniel Anello, chief executive officer of Kids First Chicago.
Griffin sees his part as shining a light on what works, so that others can keep it growing.
While he’s donated $1.25 billion over his lifetime and plans to give billions more to higher education, Griffin said he’s not making “big bets” philanthropy, but looking to “make a difference right here, right now.” Four recent education gifts are all less than $8 million each and he doesn’t have a huge staff.
Griffin said he seeks out successful programs that can “become part of the flywheel of government,” but is open to guidance from Washington.
“I want to know what’s important to the secretary of education and to the new administration,” he said. “What are the areas where they believe the private sector can best help accelerate the goals of strengthening education in our country in the pursuit of maintaining American competitiveness?”
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