Warren Hellman: A tough banjo to pluck

Millionaire financier Warren Hellman knows about reading people wrong. At a recent Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival — the free annual music blowout in Golden Gate Park that he personally bankrolls — Hellman approached a conservatively dressed socialite in her 50s and said, “Boy, there’s a really strong smell of pot here this year.”

Her response, to Hellman’s surprise, was, “Want some?”

Another year, Hellman recalled this “out-there” young woman handed him “three little purple things.” His first reaction was to say, “Look, I don’t want to be unpleasant. But I really don’t want to swallow these.”

“You’re going to swallow them?” the girl said, puzzled.

“What are they?” he asked.

“Azurite crystals,” she said.

Suspicious, Hellman then asked what he was supposed to do with the crystals, if not swallow them.

“Have them, man!” she said, annoyed. “Just have them!”

Of all people, Hellman knows not to judge based on appearances alone. After all, there might not be a single fat cat on Money Street who is as shockingly misinterpreted as Hellman.

Once nicknamed “Hurricane Hellman,” he is one of The City’s wealthiest and most unconventional men. A no-nonsense, bullheaded director of dozens of deep-pocketed companies, his name alone can make knees shake on the elevator ride to his sleek top-floor office in downtown San Francisco.

This is the man who, at 26, was the youngest, most dominating partner at Lehman Brothers in New York; the man who ran every day for 12 years before tearing his Achilles’ tendon and who, years ago, told his children on a hiking trip that if they were able to talk, they weren’t hiking hard enough.

And yet while colleagues have described him as stubborn and opinionated, they also say he’s far from a humorless curmudgeon. This is a man who dresses casually for high-powered meetings and rarely begins a meeting without a joke. His humor is, by and large, self-deprecating. And he is a man who can write a mean love song on the five-string banjo, although he will tell you he is, at best, a minor-leaguer of the instrument.

“I think if last year I was in the winter leagues, I’m probably up to Single-A now,” he said.

While Hellman is a consummate symbol of success — not only as a champion in business, but also a collegiate water-polo player, skilled skier and two-time finisher of a 100-mile footrace across California — he is, perhaps, just leagues more intense than even the average Richie Rich.

And to those who know him well, nothing is more excessive about Hellman than his humor, levity and openness to all music and  lifestyles.

“Warren is so much fun,” said Dawn Holliday, the Slim’s and Great American Music Hall general manager who produces Hellman’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.

Holliday said she didn’t even know who Hellman was or what he was worth when he approached her nearly a decade ago about putting on a San Francisco bluegrass festival. She said she couldn’t have expected Hellman was a millionaire, because “money and music” usually don’t mix.

“He might be money, but he’s just not money I’ve ever met before,” she said. “I just don’t see him that way.”

The annual three-day festival is a grouping of Hellman’s favorite bands and musical styles. In its inaugural year of 2001, the event had eight bands and 20,000 fans. It has grown into a globally renowned festival with big-name acts, five stages and as many as 300,000 people watching free of charge.

Musicians and fans alike often wonder if he’s gone mad, throwing money into what might be the biggest free concert in the nation. The 74-year-old Hellman has even pledged to continue sponsoring the annual event 15 years after he dies, “as long as San Franciscans still want it,” he said.

In fact, at one of the festivals, Hazel Dickens — the bluegrass icon whose dozens of protest songs rail against crooked government and rich bankers — admitted to being confused by Hellman.

“I’m having a real tough time,” she told thousands of fans in between songs. “If Warren goes on being so nice, I’m going to have to change some of my songs.”

Hellman is as much an intensely stubborn businessman as he is an intensely generous philanthropist. When he is not investing in and rebuilding giant companies, he is using his savvy leadership skills, as well as his money, to aid in a number of San Francisco causes, particularly in the subjects of public education and the local economy. He has held past and present leadership positions in The San Francisco Foundation, the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the San Francisco Free Clinic (which was founded by his daughter), among others.

Hellman, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative and social moderate, has pumped millions of dollars into propositions that would support The City’s public-school system, and, most recently, angered some colleagues by bankrolling a recently passed parcel tax that supports local schools. Hellman, after all, is a product of The City’s public-school system, having attended Lowell High School.

“What I always tell people is think locally, act locally,” Hellman said.

But then, what’s the reason for footing the bill for an annual festival, which, by appearance alone, does little more than entertain city residents for a three-day stretch?

“As I like to say, it was the most selfish gift anyone could give themselves,” Hellman said.

On a more philosophical point — a point that only supports his personality — the band, the banjo, and the hour he practices each day between high-powered board meetings are just extensions of Hellman’s unending intensity in everything he does — and, sadly, he says, music is one of the last subjects of his storied life in which his intensity can bear fruit.

“Clearly at my age, you’re not improving in most of the things you’ve done for a long time,” Hellman said. “I ski worse than I did, I run slower than I did and to have at least one thing which is subject to being improved is really very gratifying. Being challenged with new tunes and fingerings is really fun, and our band is really fun.”

And as long as he is living, nothing will stop Hellman from having his fun.


Warren Hellman facts

Age: 74
Born: New York City, 1934
Residence: San Francisco
Occupation: Co-founder and chairman of San Francisco-based Hellman & Friedman LLC
Education: UC Berkeley, economics, 1955; Harvard Business School, 1959
Wife: Patricia Christina Hellman — ex-ballet dancer, singer, painter

– Frances Hellman, professor and chair, UC Berkeley physics department
– Patricia Hellman Gibbs, doctor and co-founder of the San Francisco Free Clinic
– Marco “Mick” Hellman, successful investor and age group world cycling champion
– Judith Hellman, doctor and associate professor at UCSF

Net worth: Suspected billionaire; declines to state

Philanthropic ventures, past and present leadership roles:
– San Francisco Foundation
– California Commission for Jobs and Economic Growth
– Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors
– The Brookings Institution
– The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce
– The San Francisco Free Clinic
– Voice of Dance

Favorite bands, artists:
– Doc Watson
– Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt
– The Kingston Trio
– Emmylou Harris
– Hazel Dickens

Favorite business successes:
– Founding Hellman & Friedman
– Founding Matrix Partners (formerly Hellman, Ferri)
– Helping found Farallon Capital Management LLC

Favorite athletic feats:
– Completing Western States Endurance Run
– Completing Tevis Endurance Ride
– Playing water polo for UC Berkeley

Favorite musical feats:
– Helping to found and present Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival
– Being part of the band The Wronglers
– Writing (with others) “End of the Roll Blues” (aka “Whyte Laydie”)

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival

When: Oct. 3–5
Where: Speedway, Lindley and Marx Meadows in Golden Gate Park
Stages: Five
Bands: 72
Cost: Free
Attendance: 300,000–500,000
Big acts who have played in the past: Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, Joan Baez, Alison Krauss, Joe Ely, Bella Fleck and the Flecktones, Los Lobos, Jeff Tweedy, Bruce Hornsby
This year’s big acts: Robert Plant with Krauss, Joe Purdy, Iron and Wine, MC Hammer, Nick Lowe, Loudon Wainwright III, Mickey Hart with Zakir Hussain, Asleep at the Wheel, Harris and Costello

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