John Studzinski’s interview in The Tablet
Monday, 20 March 2010
The Tablet Interview
Philanthropy beyond the chequebook
In the wake of the banking crisis, many bankers have sought to improve their image by giving to charity. But as John Studzinski, one of the biggest philanthropists around, tells Chris Blackhurst, throwing money at good causes just isn’t enough
If you ask someone for their image of a banker, the chances are they will come up with a Gordon Gekko-type character portrayed in the film Wall Street, with slicked back hair, intoning “greed is good”. And with the financial crisis of the past couple of years, the image of Gekko is even stronger.
But can there be another way for bankers to behave? Recently, the head of investment bank Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, was mocked when he said he was “doing God’s work”. Yet it is possible for a banker to be socially useful – as John Studzinski, multi-millionaire, Catholic and philanthropist shows.
Now with Blackstone, the American private-equity house that has a substantial presence in London, Studzinski, or “Studs”, as he is commonly known in the City, was an investment banker with HSBC, and before that, Morgan Stanley. He’s 53 years old, American, unmarried, with homes in London, New York and New England. Until recently, London was his main residence – now he divides his time between the UK and US.
In his career he’s earned tens of millions of pounds, including an estimated £25 million from three years at HSBC alone. That puts Studzinski among the City of London’s and Wall Street’s elite bankers and financiers, based on income. But in his case – and he makes no secret of it – he uses his banking prowess to finance his charitable giving. He donated £5m to the Tate Modern for its new extension. He is founder of the European arm of Human Rights Watch, a former chairman of Business Action for the Homeless, heavily involved with The Passage, the homeless centre funded by Cardinal Hume, and he runs his own Genesis Foundation that supports young artists. In all, Studzinski gives away about half his pay each year.
But there is more to Studs than the handing over of money – indeed, he professes to hate what he dismisses as “chequebook philanthropy”. He likes to play an active part in promoting whichever cause he supports, drawing on his financial and management expertise and his enormous range of contacts. It was John Studzinski who arranged for Princess Diana to visit the destitute in the Strand in London and he personally guided parties of well-known corporate chiefs around The Passage to persuade them to employ homeless people in their organisations.
We’re sitting in Blackstone offices in Mayfair. “Blackstone is my 24/7 job,” he says. “But I’ve organised myself to be in the charitable sector since I was a child, particularly in doing things with the homeless. If you try hard enough, you can make charity a way of life. In my case, I tend to get involved – I’m not interest in charity look-at-me photography. So many charities call to take your money and not your complexity.” He laughs: “With me, they have to take my complexity.”
He’s a devout Catholic who was made a Knight of the Order of St Gregory by Pope John Paul II for his humanitarian efforts. His 1771 Robert Adam house in Chelsea has its own private chapel complete with candlesticks that used to belong to St Ignatius Loyola, and he set up Genesis after commissioning an opera to celebrate the seventy-fifth birthday of Cardinal Hume, a close friend and mentor.
There was never any question of him being anything other than Catholic. “Oh God, when you grow up in a Polish Catholic family as I did, that’s it – you’re a Catholic,” he said, making it appear natural and comforting. “When you’re a young child, the Church is part of your security network. It’s part of your culture, your education, your social life, your family.”
Subsequently, he’s explored other faiths – without leaving his own. “I’ve got 40 god-children, of whom 10 aren’t Catholic children. There are several Jews, several Muslims – yet I am their godparent. As you get older, the role of religion in your life plays a different function. I don’t care what religion children are raised in, but they need to be given a reason to their lives.”
In his case, he says, “until I was 21, Catholicism was a cornerstone in my life. It’s important that children have that cornerstone but can then decide for themselves.” It distresses him “that these days too many parents are too lazy to devote time to the spiritual side of their children”.
The UK is odd, he says, “because it is secular. People here rarely see the true meaning of devotion. To go to Lourdes and to witness 1,000 people praying the Rosary by candlelight – that is special and deeply moving.”
He spent a lot of time with the late Cardinal Hume and still thinks of him regularly. “When you saw Basil pray, that was devotion – the feeling of the presence of God. The Catholic Church is an important tool that enables people to find a relationship with God, but it’s not the only one. In Asia, Buddhism and Hinduism dominate. In the Middle East, it’s Islam. I’ve read the Qur’an and I’ve taken courses in other religions.”
There are, he maintains, close similarities between Eastern and Western religions. “They have a lot to learn from each other. They’re all internal. In the East, they’re all about silence and achieving inner harmony. But that helps you understand the Western, monastic religions where monks pray and also live in silence. They’re not as far apart as we might think. They all agree on one thing: dignity.”
Dignity is a word that crops up time and again in conversation with Studzinski. The importance he attaches to human dignity defines his financial work, which allows him to put his money and effort into charities that very often, particularly in the case of his philanthropy towards the homeless, is about enabling people to recover their dignity. He prays in his chapel when he’s at home in London and attends church “two or three times a week, always on a Saturday and Sunday”.
“I’m a great believer in the Jesuit tradition of body, mind, spirit. A large element of my life is discipline,” he said, explaining that he had no problem squaring his belief with his business career and wealth. “I see it as like the Patek Philippe advert where you don’t just own a watch, you’re a caretaker for future generations. It’s possible to see it as something beautiful, a work of art that is to be handed down. I see us as caretakers and it’s our role to pass the world on to others. It’s not about chequebook philanthropy.
“We have to look at people, to be able to see them all on the same level. You realise when you work with the homeless, when you step back, that people are all the same. We’re all human beings, we’re all on the planet for a set period of time.”
He wishes more City folk would spend time working with the homeless, saying: “You don’t understand anything about humanity until you work with marginalised people. It’s possible to meet homeless people who once enjoyed high-flying careers until their world collapsed. Human dignity and self-esteem are very fragile. Everybody in the City likes to pretend they don’t exist.”
Has he ever refused to advise someone? “Absolutely,” he laughs. “I’ve asked not to work with a particular client. I only work with clients who take my advice at least 50 per cent of the time.”
They’ve also got to have similar values, he says: “They’ve got to have honesty of communication – if you don’t tell someone the truth you’re insulting their dignity. You want people in a business who can put them selves in the position of others, whether it’s colleagues, the board or their adversaries.”
Has business changed as a result of the current crisis? He shakes his head and his face adopts a wistful expression. “At Davos [the world economic forum of major global companies and their leaders] I was heading a panel of four or five CEOs. I asked each one the average time they spend in their board meetings thinking about their cultures and their values. Each one answered ‘zero’.”
His assistant puts her head round the door – his next appointment is waiting. Mr Studzinski nods. He must go. He wants to say one more thing – he does wish the City wasn’t so driven by money. “You know, what God teaches you doesn’t have a lot to do with money. You can be successful without money.”
Chris Blackhurst is City editor of the London Evening Standard.