How Al Gore amassed a fortune that rivals Mitt Romney’s
Leveraging his aura as a technology seer and his political and climate work connections, Gore has remade himself into a wealthy businessman, amassing a fortune that may exceed $200 million.
In 1999, Al Gore, then U.S. vice president and a Democratic candidate for president, sold $6,000 worth of cows.
The former senator, who spent most of his working life in Congress, had a net worth of about $1.7 million and assets that included pasture rents from a family farm and royalties from a zinc mine, remnants of his rural roots in Carthage, Tennessee. Funds from the cattle sale went to three of his kids, according to federal disclosure forms filed as part of his presidential run.
Fourteen years later, he made an estimated $100 million in a single month. In January, the Current TV network, which he helped to start in 2004, was sold to Qatari-owned Al Jazeera Satellite Network for about $500 million. After debt, he grossed an estimated $70 million for his 20 percent stake, according to people familiar with the transaction.
Two weeks later, Gore exercised options, at $7.48 a share, on 59,000 shares of Apple Inc. stock that he’d been granted for serving on the Cupertino, California-based company’s board since 2003. On paper, it was about a $30 million payday based on the company’s share price on the day he claimed the options.
That’s a pretty good January for a guy who couldn’t yet call himself a multimillionaire when he briefly slipped from public life after his bitterly contested presidential election loss to George W. Bush in late 2000, based on 1999 and 2000 disclosure forms.
Gore isn’t finished exercising his Apple stock grants. Those 59,000 are part of 101,358 Apple options and shares of restricted stock Gore has amassed, according to company filings, giving his total holdings a gross value of more than $45.6 million today.
Albert Arnold Gore Jr., 65, is a lot of things to a lot of people. Among friends and fans, he’s the progressive Democrat who should have been president, visionary author and Internet prophet, the man who more than anyone drove climate change to the center of public consciousness.
Detractors see Gore as a limousine liberal, tiresome pedant and climate alarmist who lives a jet-setting, carbon-profligate lifestyle while preaching asceticism for everyone else.
His work and writing on global warming have earned him a share of a Nobel Prize as well as a South Park cartoon parody in which he tries to scare school kids to his beliefs with a fictitious global-warming surrogate monster known as ManBearPig.
Whatever you think of Gore, one thing is indisputable: leveraging his aura as a technology seer and his political and climate work connections, Gore has remade himself into a wealthy businessman, amassing a fortune that may exceed $200 million.
That’s close to the $250 million net worth of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whom President Obama and Democrats targeted in ads and speeches as being out of touch with most Americans.
Gore declined to be interviewed for this story. Estimates of his wealth are based on company filings, government records, public pronouncements he or his associates have made about past business dealings and interviews with people in a position to know of and evaluate Gore’s holdings.
How Gore achieved this is as much about timing and luck as it is about business skills. His Apple board tenure has coincided with a 5,900 percent increase in its stock price. Current TV was a moribund “fixer-upper” when Al Jazeera stepped in to buy it at “a huge valuation,” said Derek Baine, an SNL Kagan cable analyst in Monterey, California.
Gore also had his share of flubs, most of them in his efforts at green-tech investing. An investment firm he helped to start took stakes in two carbon-trading firms that fizzled and also racked up tens of millions in losses in a solar-module maker.
The wealth accumulation attests to Gore’s ability, particularly among technology companies and rich political progressives, to attract moneyed and skilled people to do deals with him or seek his paid counsel.
This may be in part because Gore, by reputation, shuns figurehead appointments for real ones. One example: at Apple’s request, he dove into an options backdating scandal, which predated his arrival, chairing a 2006 committee that recommended revisions to company policies.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Reed Hundt, a Gore high-school friend, said of his business success.
Hundt, whom Gore helped get appointed to run Bill Clinton’s Federal Communications Commission in 1993, didn’t detect a business gene in young Al back in their days at Washington’s private St. Albans School.
Gore went on to graduate with a degree in government from Harvard University, dabble in journalism and study but never graduate from law school at Vanderbilt University. Instead, he quit to run for public office.
Still, says Hundt, “it was clear that Al was smart and was going places.”
Gore hasn’t tried to hide his prosperity. Back in 2000, about $750,000 of his net worth was tied to two homes he and his then-wife Tipper owned in Virginia and Tennessee.
Most of the rest had been recently inherited, including an undisclosed number of shares of Occidental Petroleum Corp. left to him by his late father, Senator Albert Gore Sr., and valued at between $500,000 and $1 million, according to disclosure forms.
He’s moved up the housing ladder since then. He owns a 20- room, 10,000-square-foot antebellum mansion in Nashville’s wealthy Belle Meade neighborhood that’s mostly shrouded from view by a thicket of Southern foliage and a massive iron gate. In 2010 -- weeks before the Gores announced they were dissolving their 40-year marriage -- he purchased an oceanfront six- bedroom, $8.9 million villa in Montecito, California, where Oprah Winfrey and Kirk Douglas have lived.
It isn’t clear how the divorce affects Gore’s net worth. No settlement has ever been published and Betsy McManus, Al Gore’s director of communications, declined to comment on it.
Such lavish living isn’t lost on Gore’s critics. In 2007, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, using a public records request, published Gore’s Nashville home utility bill, showing it used almost 221,000 kilowatt-hours in 2006 -- 20 times the national average household consumption. Gore’s people dismissed the revelation.
His ascent into America’s 1 percent happened quickly. After losing to Bush, he had enough wealth by March 2008 to put $35 million into hedge funds and private partnerships through Capricorn Investment Group, a Palo Alto, California-based company, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission documents.
The investment company was founded by his buddy, Canadian billionaire Jeffrey Skoll, who amassed a large part of his fortune in shares he was awarded as the first president of EBay Inc.
His best-selling climate books, “Earth in the Balance,” “An Inconvenient Truth” and “The Assault on Reason,” haven’t contributed to his wealth. Gore has long pledged any book and film money to his nonprofit, the Climate Reality Project, created in 2011 from two advocacy groups Gore founded a year earlier.
By the time of the Capricorn investment, he was already starting to rake in cash from Generation Investment Management - - a fund that incorporates “sustainability” into its investment approach. Gore co-founded GIM in 2004 with former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Managing Director David W. Blood.
Public filings show that in 2008 through 2011 London-based GIM racked up almost 140 million pounds ($218 million) in profits to be split among its 26 partners.
Gore and Blood as founders are thought to have the largest equity stakes. GIM doesn’t disclose partnership equity or how the partners split profits, said Richard Campbell, a spokesman.
Gore had a string of connections and invitations to join what would turn out to be prosperous enterprises. Skoll’s Participant Media produced the 2006 Oscar-winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” based on Gore’s climate work. The movie was pivotal in helping him win his share of the 2007 Nobel and claim speaker fees at $175,000 a pop.
Prior to being invited to join Apple’s board, Gore was tapped as a senior adviser to Google Inc. before its 2004 initial public offering and at a time when it was not yet a household word. Google won’t discuss his duties or compensation though some in Silicon Valley believe his pay there may be as rich as his Apple remuneration, which that company is required to disclose because he’s a director.
Blood joined with Gore after he was among the original 221 Goldman partners who got shares in that company’s 1999 IPO. Blood’s 0.66 percent stake, based on valuations at the time, was thought to be worth about $100 million.
Blood lived with his family in Brazil as a youngster and has said he was distressed by the extreme poverty there. Gore’s notion of “sustainable capitalism” appealed to Blood, who also declined to be interviewed for this story.
In November 2007, GIM announced a partnership with Silicon Valley venture capital company Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, to join its green-investing efforts. The goal, according to a joint press release at the time, was to create “a global collaboration to find, fund and accelerate green business, technology and policy solutions with the greatest potential to help solve the current climate crisis.”
Gore was made a partner at Kleiner Perkins and John Doerr, an early investor in Amazon.com Inc., Intuit Inc. and Google, joined GIM’s advisory board. At Kleiner Perkins, Gore helps with investment strategies and selectively advises companies but doesn’t lead deals or take board seats on startups the firm invests in. Kleiner Perkins declined to discuss his compensatio
Investing on behalf of its clients, GIM has put $50 million to $100 million in KPCB’s $1 billion green growth fund, according to two people with knowledge of the amount who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak about it.
While Kleiner Perkins doesn’t publish fund results, its green fund hasn’t had unblemished success.
Along with potential winners like Bloom Energy, a fuel-cell maker, and Nest Labs Inc., a thermostat company, Kleiner Perkins also backed Miasole Inc., a solar-panel maker that was bought for a reported $30 million after raising at least $494 million from investors, and Fisker Automotive Inc., the electric-car maker that fired three-quarters of its staff last month.
Gore earns his keep in Silicon Valley beyond simply attending the annual holiday party. He’s made himself available to a number of technology companies that got startup help from Kleiner Perkins. Andrew Fisher, chairman of Shazam Entertainment Ltd., a mobile music app maker backed by Kleiner Perkins, said Gore flew to London two years ago and agreed to be interviewed on stage in front of about 200 company employees and business partners.
Gore’s preparation was first rate and it was clear that “he’s tremendously well-versed” in Kleiner Perkins’s investments, Fisher said. At the presentation, “he talked about his work around the environment, leadership in small companies, decision making, sitting on the board of Apple. People were fascinated with his insight.”
Gore paid a similar visit last year to a recycling plant in Vancouver run by Harvest Power Inc., one of Kleiner Perkins’s clean-tech companies.
Eric Feng, former Hulu LLC chief technology officer and ex- Kleiner Perkins employee, described Gore as an energized and active participant in investment decisions who is “very well- respected among the partners.” He’s regularly asked for feedback on investments and is considered “a very valuable resource,” Feng said.
Shopkick Inc. Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Cyriac Roeding met Gore about two years ago at Kleiner Perkins. As a guru on climate change, Roeding figured Gore was unlikely to have much interest in Shopkick’s technology, which helps retailers target customers with discounts.
“I took a photo with him because I thought I’d never see him again,” Roeding says.
He was wrong. In February 2012, Gore joined Roeding at the Village Pub in Silicon Valley -- the same place where Mark Zuckerberg was famously courted by Accel Partners’ Jim Breyer -- for an intimate event with about 35 executives from top retailers like Macy’s Inc., Crate & Barrel and Target Corp. In a fireside chat, Gore answered every question Roeding threw his way and showed a deep knowledge of Shopkick’s market.
“I had not planned on talking about Shopkick, but he just kept coming back to it,” Roeding says. “He talked about how the future of the physical world is converging with the digital world.”
They love Al Gore in Silicon Valley and why shouldn’t they? Gore never claimed, as some conservative critics have asserted, to have invented the Internet.
Still, as a Tennessee congressman and senator, he was the first national politician to see how personal computers connected to a system he popularized as the “information superhighway” would radically change the social and commercial landscape of the U.S. and the world.
He drafted the Performance Computing Act of 1991, often called the Gore Bill, which led to funding to build the system that later became the Internet.
None of this was lost on Apple when, in March 2003, Steve Jobs personally asked Gore to join the board. An Apple press release about the appointment was a techie love fest. “Al is an avid Mac user and does his own video editing in Final Cut Pro,” Jobs said.
Apple was trading at about $7.50 a share when Gore accepted the Apple board seat. The company’s stock closed at $449.98 on May 3 in New York. The escalation of his options alone would have made him rich.
Gore’s profiting from the Al Jazeera sale is another example of luck, timing or both. Gore and partners that included Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle, Hyatt Legal Services founder Joel Hyatt and San Francisco money manager Richard Blum bought the predecessor company for $70 million in 2004.
Re-launched as Current TV, Gore said at the time he wanted to create a “transformational” network. It would, like YouTube, thrive on youthful viewer input, be an antidote to Fox News a
Instead, Current failed to make much of an impact at all while Gore was paying himself $1.2 million a year in salary and bonuses, according to 2008 SEC documents filed as part of a proposed public offering that was later withdrawn. Meanwhile, Time Warner Cable Inc., which carried the network and accounted for about 9 million of its subscribers, made noises about dropping Current from its listings along with other “low- rated” networks.
In 2011, Current attempted to remake itself by bringing in Keith Olbermann, the former anchor of MSNBC’s Countdown program. The relationship quickly devolved into a public relations disaster. Olbermann, who had signed what was reported to be a five-year, $50 million contract, was fired in March 2012. Accusations and lawsuits flew.
Current, in an April 6, 2012, breach-of-contract suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, accused Olbermann of waging a campaign to “undermine” the network by, among other things, taking unauthorized days off, leaking the terms of his contract to the media and failing to lead Current’s 2012 primary election coverage as he was asked to do.
Olbermann, in his own lawsuit, painted an ugly picture of the Gore-anointed management team. Current, while promising to deliver “a high-caliber political commentary show,” turned out to be amateur hour with Gore and co-founder Hyatt “no more than dilettantes portraying entertainment industry executives.”
Olbermann had asked the court to award him as much as $70 million. The two parties reached a settlement in March for terms that weren’t disclosed.
The sale to Al Jazeera drew a lawsuit from media consultant John Terenzio who said putting the two networks in touch was his idea and he’s owed money.
Terenzio said he sent an intermediary to see Current investor Richard Blum under a supposition that “in light of Current’s well-publicized financial woes, its principals might be interested in selling the struggling network.”
Blum, according to the lawsuit, “expressed immediate interest” in hearing Terenzio’s proposal, explaining that “he and other Current investors were concerned about the prospect of losing their shirt in financially troubled Current.” Blum, Al Jazeera and Current declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The transaction also raised eyebrows because Gore, who has for years inveighed against fossil fuels and their role in climate change, sold the network to a company funded in part by oil-rich Qatar. Jon Stewart, host of the Daily Show television program, asked in January, “Can mogul Al Gore coexist with activist Al Gore?”
Gore defended the sale on the grounds that, among other things, Al Jazeera has “the highest quality, most extensive, best climate coverage of any network in the world.” It’s a position Gore’s been forced to defend repeatedly along the tour for his latest book “The Future: the Six Drivers of Global Change.”
Cable TV analysts, meanwhile, were abuzz over the $500 million payout. Current had been seeking buyers for a while, aware that Time Warner might soon pull the plug, but had not found any takers until Al Jazeera stepped forward.
“It seems like a really high price to me,” SNL’s Baine said. “It’s hard to sell a fixer-upper. From the beginning Current had a programming strategy that hadn’t worked and they changed it over and over and it still didn’t work. Honestly, not a lot of people had ever heard of it.”
Al Jazeera might have been desperate enough to get into the U.S. market to pay that kind of a premium since it’s still cheaper to buy a network than it is to build one from scratch, he said.
“To be locked out of one of the world’s biggest markets is a problem for them,” Blaine said. Al Jazeera, while declining to comment on the price, has said it intends to hire about 100 journalists in New York and Washington for its rebranded channel.
The deal had no sooner been announced than Time Warner Cable said it was in fact pulling the plug on Current “as quickly as possible” and wouldn’t carry the rebranded Al Jazeera channel over its U.S. distribution system.
Meanwhile, Gore’s “sustainable” GIM investing company has seen its philosophy of buying stocks and holding for the long term tested at times.
Blood and Gore, as the company is sometimes known, eschews “the dominance of short-termism in the market” which “fosters general market instability and undermines the efforts of executives seeking long-term value creation,” the two men wrote in an 2011 op-end in the Wall Street Journal.
GIM’s roster of publicly traded U.S. holdings include successful, albeit not particularly green, companies like Amazon, EBay, Procter & Gamble Co. and Colgate-Palmolive Co. A few of the others would count in GIM parlance as green or at least sustainable investments, such as Solarcity Corp., a rooftop solar installer, and Blackbaud Inc., a software maker that helps nonprofits raise money.
GIM has assets under management of about $8.5 billion. Its investment strategy and returns have been impressive enough that Britain’s Environment Agency asked it to manage 7.2 percent of its 1.6 billion-pound investment portfolio through 2014. That’s up from 4.8 percent in 2009, according to documents filed with Britain’s securities regulator.
At times the company’s green investing approach hasn’t worked. In 2008, with optimism that a Democrat-controlled Congress would establish carbon controls and an international climate treaty would be extended, GIM bought a 9.6 percent stake, in Camco International Ltd., a manager of projects that reduce greenhouse gases.
By early 2010, GIM had upped its stake in the company now known as Camco Clean Energy Plc to 18.6 percent, according to documents. By October of that year, with Republicans in the House saying no to climate legislation and Kyoto Protocol talks stalled, shares in Camco were taking a beating. GIM dumped its stake. Neither company would comment on GIM’s actions.
In another instance, GIM took a 10 percent stake in the Chicago Climate Exchange, set up in 2003 by former derivatives guru Richard Sandor to take advantage of what the exchange’s founders hoped would be a government-mandated price on carbon. The exchange ran into the same headwinds as Camco and was sold to Atlanta-based IntercontinentalExchange Inc. in May 2010 for $581 million. It was later shut as carbon prices fell to all- time lows.
GIM would only say that neither Camco nor Chicago Climate Exchange were profitable investments.
If emissions limits had been approved by Congress, both Camco and the exchange stood to rake in huge profits, said Dan Kish, vice president for policy with the Washington-based Institute for Energy Research, which gets funding from oil and natural gas companies.
“Al Gore is like the preacher touting his moral purity and superiority,” Kish said. “Yet it turns out that heeding his preachings is directly linked to his financial interests.”
Besides its losing investments in Camco and Chicago Climate Exchange, GIM also bailed out of First Solar Inc., a solar-panel maker that, like bankrupt Solyndra LLC, got squeezed when cheap Chinese supplies began hitting the market in late 2010.
According to SEC filings, GIM first began buying First Solar at $113 a share in the third quarter of 2010. GIM continued its buying for several more quarters even as the shares lost luster. When it was clear First Solar was truly tanking, GIM dumped its last lot in the second quarter of 2012.
It’s accumulated loss was $165.9 million, according to a Bloomberg calculation based on SEC filings.
Gore said in a May 1 interview with Bloomberg Television that American democracy has been “hacked” by the influence of money in politics and that he hopes activist investors will continue to exert influence on corporations globally to act in a responsible way.
During a 2009 House hearing, Tennessee Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn tackled Gore on the issue of whether he had become a “climate profiteer” by betting on companies that might hugely benefit from his advocacy. Gore’s response: “Congresswoman, if you believe that the reason I have been working on this issue for 30 years is because of greed, you don’t know me.”