Bill Davidson's Great Fortune, Like Many, Brings Strife

May 31, 2013, 7:03 AM by  Doron Levin

Bill Davidson died March 13, 2009 at age 86.

In the sad matter of the late Bill Davidson’s estate, two clichés come to mind.  The first is that no good deed goes unpunished.  The second is that great wealth and happiness often have little to do with one another.

Davidson displayed a tightly focused brand of generosity, shaped by a vision of how his wealth should be used to do good.  He wanted to train future managers, teachers and leaders, as well as develop management systems, in two broad areas:  Jewish education and emerging economies.

The William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan, established in 1992, has helped train 5,000 managers from 1,500 organizations throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as students at the university. 

Davidson’s money also provides scholarships at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he endowed The Davidson School of Jewish Education. These are two of many causes that Davidson helped in his lifetime.

Davidson Could Be Irascible

The former owner of the Detroit Pistons and The Palace of Auburn Hills, though a kind and giving person, could be irascible. He usually rejected pleas for relatively small sums, even to honor friends, because he viewed himself as a big thinker and wanted his money to do big things.

John D. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil and in his day was as rich as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, considered the intelligent, effective contribution of wealth the greatest intellectual challenge of his life.  Rockefeller had his share of disappointments.Davidson, whose fortune derived mostly from Guardian Industries, a manufacturer of glass and automotive parts based in Auburn Hills, donated money when he believed in the cause.  But the decision to donate also was based on his belief in those entrusted with the money to carry out their promises.  He had a falling out with the Technion, Israel’s renowned technical university, after he decided his donation was being misspent.

The $1-billion foundation he left following his death in 2009 could grow to $1.5 billion or more if and when the majority of Guardian Industries is sold to the Koch family, which already has bought 44 percent.  In the meantime, the heirs who were designated by Davidson to run his foundation are squabbling among themselves in court.

Because they’re fighting over who should be in charge and how to spend the money, they can't fulfill Davidson’s vision by finding worthy recipients for the roughly $50 million annually the foundation must donate. Unless the foundation gets busy contributing at least that amount annually, its tax-free status is jeopardized.

A Pity for Family and Friends

A pity for those who might already be benefiting from Davidson’s generosity.  A bigger pity for the family members and friends who should be deploying the money from his foundation to do good for the world but have allowed great wealth and power to cloud their judgment.

I met and interviewed Davidson a few times.  Though I didn’t know him well, I’ll guess that what he would have wanted even more than another world-class institute or a brilliant program of scholarships was for his family to live together harmoniously, to be kind, gentle and generous to one another in spirit and action.  He probably would have been heartbroken if he thought that the money he amassed in his lifetime would cause bitterness and conflict.

More than a few wealthy people have learned through experience that it’s no favor to children and heirs when they’re given too much money – or power.  In retrospect, Davidson would have been wise – and kinder to his family – by giving away as much as possible in his later years and being meticulously specific about his post-death wishes.

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