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George Russell is not afraid of tackling big problems. If he has his way, many Americans will change their views of Muslims and Islam, doctors will increasingly focus on early detection of diseases, and nuclear waste will be destroyed, not stored.
These may seem curious pastimes for the man who pioneered the business of consulting to pension funds while at the helm of Frank Russell Company, now known as Russell Investment Group.
However, a trip to China in 1979 to explore investment opportunities was a turning-point in his world view, one that shaped his intellectual pursuits and philanthropy.
It was that visit, he says, that “put in lights the word ‘globalisation’” and galvanised his belief that globalisation could reduce poverty.
“The thing that got me most in the China visit was the poverty and a very minor number of wealthy people.
“It really separates the haves from the have-nots in an extremely visible fashion,” Russell explains.
“So my view is that we probably over time could narrow that gap between the haves and the have-nots and reduce the violence in the world.”
The China trip was part of the early effort that would become the Russell 20-20, a non-profit group of 20 pension plan sponsors and 20 money managers that explores investment opportunities in developing countries.
By the time he founded the group in 1990, Russell had transformed the small brokerage and mutual fund business he bought from his grandfather in 1958 into a leading investment management and advisory firm known for its multi-manager approach to investing.
In 1984, it created the Russell Indexes to track performance objectively and the Russell 2000 is today the most closely followed benchmark for the performance of small stocks.
Russell built the business on the principle of “non-negotiable integrity”, a phrase he traces to Robert Bates, a mountain climber and mentor during his time at Phillips Exeter Academy. “In my way of running a business, you don’t have a second or third chance. We know what the rules are to begin with, it’s a narrow trail and, if you step off it, we don’t need that type of behaviour,” Russell says.
In 1993 he appointed Michael Phillips as chief executive and moved to the role of chairman. The change capped a transition strategy that had started four years earlier. “Transition planning is a critically important thing,” Russell says. “Entrepreneurs stay too long – too many don’t want to give up the position of CEO. Most of these guys want to stay in power. My view was: ‘What’s best for the company?’ Not: ‘how long can I stay in power?’”
He groomed two potential successor chief executives – but changed his mind on both before settling on Phillips. “I needed someone who had the courage to not worry about what I thought but to make his own decisions,” he says.
When Russell and his wife, Jane, sold their company to Northwestern Mutual eight years ago, they set up Threshold Group to manage their assets and act as a multi-family office for clients worth more than $200m.
They also used the proceeds to fund The Russell Family Foundation, which focuses mainly on global security initiatives, Pacific Northwest environmental programmes and an effort to build strong leaders at a variety of local non-profit organisations.
In so doing they followed the dictum of Andrew Carnegie, the great philanthropist of an earlier era, that “surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community”.
Russell says the decision to give away money was “not complicated”.
“My late wife and I both thought that we don’t need much and there are a lot of people and organisations that need money, so why not give them a hand,” he says in his characteristically understated way. “We sort of had the view for years that we could get along with one car and, as soon as we had enough money to buy a second car, then after that start giving it away. We don’t need a house in the Caribbean and we don’t need a house in Timbuktu.”
(One indulgence – besides an interest in glass art, architecture and travelling – is boating. Russell keeps a photograph of Shadowfax, his 106ft yacht, in his wallet alongside one of his second wife, Dion, and his driver’s licence.)
The sprightly 74-year-old – he does daily push-ups to match his age – does not like to talk about how much he has given away. Suffice it to say “a lot”.
And unlike many other wealthy philanthropists, he keeps a low profile: there are no business schools, hospital wings or libraries named after him.
While Russell’s business card simply says “chairman, Threshold Group”, the flipside tells a different story. On the back, in small print, is a long list of organisations and projects he funds or is involved with.
One is the EastWest Institute, a think-tank that focuses on international political, economic and security issues, where he is chairman.
Russell’s latest project – and one that he is increasingly passionate about – is One Nation, a not-for-profit philanthropic collaborative group he helped establish last year.
The group is trying to connect social investors with initiatives that will positively reshape US perceptions of Muslims and Islam.
“About a half of 1 per cent of Christians, Jews and Muslims are bad people. The perception of 50 per cent of Americans is that all Muslims are bad people and, if we don’t change that perception, I think in the next three or four years we are going to have a 100-year war because the terrorists are basically claiming that Islam is at war with the west, which means American Christians and Jews, in my view. So I think we have about a four-year window of opportunity to change the perception of most Americans,” Russell says.
Another focus is the Pacific Health Summit, which this month held its third annual meeting. Its goal is to foster improvements in global health by using scientific advances for the prevention, detection and treatment of disease.
Early detection is perhaps the most personal of Russell’s philanthropic interests, as his first wife, Jane, died in 2002 after a 13-month battle with cancer.
“The question that came to my mind was: what if we had known about this five years earlier? What if there had been early detection?
“Only 5 per cent of medical people pay attention to early detection. If you could increase that 5 per cent to 30 per cent, it would extend lives, lower costs and do all sorts of good things.”
And then there is his work in nuclear technology, which dates back to an enterprising project in Russia in the early 1990s, when Russell sponsored a satirical, Muppets-type television programme to promote market economics.
“The producer of the show had done a documentary on Chernobyl and was very aware of nuclear waste. I, too, was concerned about nuclear waste and the idea occurred to me: why, instead of burying nuclear waste, don’t we consider the possibility of destroying it?” Russell recalls. “I spent six years talking to nuclear scientists round the world …and I could not find a single nuclear physicist who thought nuclear waste could be destroyed. So in November 1990, at a meeting in Russia, we had 10 top nuclear scientists answer the question: Can nuclear waste be destroyed? And by the second day they said: ‘In a decade or so we think it can be done.’”
So he set up an organisation, Nuclear Fuel Cycle Technologies, run by Professor David McNelis of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in order to explore the issue.
“We are about six to 12 months away from testing the theory of destroying nuclear waste,” Russell says. “If it can be done, look what happens. If we can destroy nuclear waste, we will have nuclear plants all over the world. We’ll put small nuclear plants on the rivers of Africa, use reverse osmosis and have fresh water. And 2bn out of 6bn people don’t have fresh water. We could solve the fresh water problem.”
On a recent episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes, Steve Kroft pointed out that, while the US had stored its radioactive waste on site at power plants while awaiting a permanent solution – the bitterly contentious Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada – the French had embraced the idea of reprocessing it. Instead of burying the spent fuel rods underground or underwater, they recycled the used fuel and used it again.
“My team is well aware of that,” Russell says. “It reduces the problem but does not solve it. We think we can solve it.”
And that, in a sense, sums up his “can-do” approach to business and philanthropy.