Eli Broad is a man in a hurry. “I’m working harder now than I’ve ever worked,” he admits from his office overlooking Westwood in Los Angeles. “When I get to the next place I’m never satisfied.”

The silver-haired son of Lithuanian immigrants has spent the past decade working on philanthropic causes following a 50-year business career in which he created two Fortune 500 companies: KB Home, a property developer, and SunAmerica, an insurance group.

Since selling SunAmerica to AIG for $18bn in 1999, the contemporary art-loving Broad (his name, when pronounced correctly, rhymes with road) has devoted himself to philanthropy full time. The Broad Foundations, his family’s cluster of philanthropic organisations, have $2.5bn under management and support the arts, education and scientific research.

Known as one of the most generous donors in the US, Broad’s efforts were recently recognised when he won the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy. Together with his wife, Edythe, the billionaire has given away about $1bn although he says his philanthropic work stepped up a gear when he sold SunAmerica. “Our family net worth went up when we sold SunAmerica so we said: ‘What do we do now? Our children have more money than we will ever need.’ So we started thinking about the big problems facing America.”

Falling standards in public education – particularly among children attending schools in urban areas – are a big concern of the Broads. “When you look at kindergarten to eighth grade, the performance is dismal.” This, he says, has led to about 30 per cent of children failing to graduate from high school.

To address this problem, his education foundation “started looking top down, from the governing bodies to managements and chancellors. We were thoroughly unimpressed with the quality of government and management.”

After much deliberation, the foundation established a programme that would attract high-calibre individuals who could be trained as school district superintendents. Attracting people with a wide range of experience was crucial, he says, so applications were sought from individuals with experience in business, education or the military.

Under normal circumstances, a superintendent “starts as a teacher or coach and if they have the right political skills they can become superintendent – which is really the chief executive of a large enterprise – without any training”.

But the Broad Superintendents Academy recruits from a bigger pool of talent, allowing applicants to keep their jobs while attending training sessions on finance, management, organisational systems, operations and education.

“We now produce more superintendents than any other entity in America. We have placed 165 people in urban school districts or charter school management organisations.”

At 74, Broad is still energetic and talks at a 100 miles an hour, jumping from subject to subject. Education fires him up, he says, partly because he feels the US has fallen behind other countries.

The foundation is selective about which school districts it works with and choosing an area depends on the willingness of local political leaders to embrace change.

“In each of the places we choose, such as in New York, you have a mayor [in Michael Bloomberg] that really wants to change the system. We only want to place [our successful applicants] with people who are change agents. If we put them in a typical bureaucracy without the mayor being involved it’s not going to work.”

He is long-time supporter of the Democratic party but would support a presidential bid from Bloomberg, who is deliberating whether to run as an independent candidate. “Can you imagine?” says Broad. “It would be so refreshing. People are so tired of the two-party system.”

Reforming the education system is one passion of Broad’s: funding important medical research and creating an environment that allows contemporary arts to flourish are others.

He supports stem cell research and says he “came to the conclusion that the greatest advance in the human condition will come about through genomic and stem cell research”. To that end, the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT was created in partnership with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

With the Broad family injecting about $200m, the institute’s aim is to build “powerful tools for genomic medicine” that can be used to treat disease.

Unlike his support of education, his donations of money for scientific research have been “opportunistic”. His work in the arts has been more systematic, though. He is a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and vice-chairman of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma).

“My wife started collecting before me,” he says. “I have always been curious about the outside world and somehow I became curious about art. I met someone who had a great art collection and I found it fascinating.”

Evidence of his fondness for art is all over his office, where works by Jasper Johns, a leading contemporary artist, hang on the walls. The Broad family’s vast collection includes works by Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

Since 1984 the Broad Art Foundation has operated an active lending library of its collection to more than 400 international museums and university galleries.

The Broads are also funding the construction of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum on land in Los Angeles next to Lacma. The new building, which has been designed by Priztker prize winning architect Renzo Piano, will have more gallery space than any other contemporary art museum.

“We believe that supporting the arts is important because it stimulates creativity and provides for a better educated population. Museums today do not have money to buy art. And acquiring contemporary art comes last [as a priority]. The collections [museums] get tend to be donated.”

Establishing the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, he says, will be an important cultural milestone in the history of Los Angeles. With Broad’s help, the city will also pass another milestone upon completion of the Grand Avenue project, an ambitious scheme to revive a large parcel of land in the city’s downtown area.

The aim is to create a cultural hub around the Disney Hall, the Frank Gehry-designed concert theatre that Broad helped finance. The project is complicated because responsibility for the land falls between Los Angeles city and county authorities.

Gehry has threatened to walk off the project following clashes with the developer, the Related Companies, which also built the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. Broad and Gehry are friends – Gehry designed Broad’s house in Brentwood, Los Angeles – and the billionaire expresses confidence Gehry will stay with the Grand Avenue project.

He says he has also helped smooth out differences between other factions involved in the scheme. “The city and the county don’t get along so I created something called the Grand Avenue committee.” The committee, he says, was made up of representatives from the mayor’s office, the county and Los Angeles city authorities.

“I decided we also needed help from God so I also went to Cardinal Mahoney [head of the Catholic diocese in Los Angeles].”

Reviving the downtown area is essential, he says. “There are 400,000 people working downtown and at the end of every day they get in their cars and clog the freeways.” The Grand Avenue scheme, which includes a cultural centre, a 16-acre park, new apartment developments and retail outlets, will make the area more attractive, he adds.

Meanwhile, a mile-and-a-half away in the south of downtown, the area around the Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball franchise, is also being revamped, as part of a separate regeneration project. “A lot of people are going to want to live downtown.”

Although he was born in Michigan, Los Angeles has been his home for many years. A drive around the city reveals how generous a donor he has become, with many prominent cultural landmarks bearing the Broad name.

His belief that the city should have world-class cultural institutions explains his recent bid for the Los Angeles Times newspaper. The joint bid, with fellow Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle, failed when Tribune, the Chicago-based company that owns the newspaper, opted to sell to a rival bidder led by Sam Zell, a Chicago billionaire.

In spite of his passion for civic work, he says he has never thought of running for public office because he can get more done as a philanthropist. He shuns typical leisure pursuits because work is more satisfying, he says. “I don’t play golf. I did that a few times and I wasn’t excited about having lunch, playing golf and then having drinks. It wasn’t appealing.”

Instead, he is happy to give his money away. “It’s an obligation. It’s also, believe it or not, a burden. If your children have everything they will ever need, what do you do? Andrew Carnegie once said: he who dies with wealth dies with shame. He was right.”

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