Ask David Koch whether love or money is more important, and the 59-year-old billionaire will tell you that it’s love.
“You’ve got to have psychic satisfaction,” he says. “Psychic well-being is far more important than financial well-being. There’s some awfully unhappy rich people.”
Koch, who has both money and love, says the only thing he doesn’t have is his health. Seven years ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “My health isn’t threatened right now, but 10 years from now it might be,” says Koch, who recently gave $25 million to support cancer research at MIT. The gift will support research in the Department of Biology, home to the Center for Cancer Research.
One of the wealthiest men in America, Koch (pronounced coke) gives away half his income each year. “I believe in being very charitable, and since I got so much benefit from MIT, I thought it was important for me to repay the favor.
“As my fortunes have risen, I just feel it’s appropriate for me to support MIT, and I’m particularly interested in biological and cancer research,” says Koch, who now supports cancer research at institutions across the U.S.
“You don’t really appreciate what it means to have a medical problem like this until you have it yourself. I’ve become extremely sympathetic to people who have cancer and realize what a horrible disease it is. People can be strong and brave in every way, but when they get cancer, it’s devastating.”
Thirty-one flights off the ground in his Manhattan office, Koch is saying there is much truth to the idea that giving is getting.
“If you’re a generous person, people appreciate that and they let you know it and you get good feedback,” he says. “I get a great deal of pleasure from giving away money to worthy causes.
“You get psychic satisfaction that it’s something worth doing. I mean, I’d rather give money away than spend it to buy bigger and better paintings. It’s more worthwhile to use the funds to support meaningful charitable activities.”
Koch also has given millions to human service organizations, educational, and cultural groups. And he not only gives money, but time. “I spend about a third of my time on charitable activities,” says Koch, who is on the boards of 18 organizations. “I feel better about myself being generous and seeing good work come out of it.”
He earned two MIT degrees in chemical engineering in 1962 and 1963, and in 1970, he joined Koch Engineering, a subsidiary of Koch Industries. He is now executive vice president of Koch Industries, the second largest privately-held firm in the U.S. The company is involved in almost every aspect of the oil and gas industry, and with $30 billion in sales, it is bigger than Coca-Cola, Merrill Lynch, or Walt Disney.
His late father, Fred C. Koch, MIT class of ’22, founded the firm in 1925. Fred tried hard to teach his children good values; he often said he didn’t want his four sons to grow up to become country club bums.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, Koch says: “We lived across the street from the country club and I was never allowed to go there without my father’s permission, which he was reluctant to give. In the summer, he insisted we take menial jobs.”
At 10, David did yard work, worked on the family farm, and shined shoes for 20 cents an hour. Later, he worked in the family’s manufacturing factory for $1.15 an hour. Once he got a 10-cent raise. “Boy, I was on top of the world,” says Koch who never got an allowance.
“My father wanted us to feel the sting of not having money. He thought we would appreciate it more if we had to earn it.”
Koch was married for the first time three years ago. He and his wife, Julia, now have a 1-year-old son, David, Jr., who Koch plans to raise with the same values that were instilled in him.
The family now lives in the $9.5 million apartment on Fifth Avenue where Jackie Onassis once lived. They also own houses in Wichita, Southampton, Aspen, and Palm Beach.
Koch loves to read. “I’m so darned busy with my business that I don’t get to read nearly enough,” says this man who loves biographies, historical fiction, and military history.
He also loves to go on exotic trips–Africa, the Himalayas, the Amazon jungle. He hires a private jet and takes along his closest friends. “It takes you out of the rut you get locked into as a businessman.”
Koch has lots of friends and he and his wife are in great demand on the New York social scene. “One of the great things I’m proud of is the good friends and the close bonds that I have,” he says. “I really enjoy the company of other people.”
He says that the most important thing he has learned in life is how to be successful. “The key to success is hard work,” he says. “If you have an undertaking, you must prepare thoroughly. Success requires dedicated work, and it’s not just a brief spurt. It’s a continuous way of life, day after day, week after week, year after year.”
He says he most would like to be thought of as “a guy who does well by doing good. That’s my attitude,” he says. “I really, truly feel that what I’m doing is creating benefits for society and for mankind. And you know, it’s really fun being along for the ride, being part of the team doing all this great stuff.”