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Michael Bloomberg: The Exit Interview

Will the soon-to-be-former mayor of New York City become even more powerful out of office?

Published: Nov 21, 2013 06:34:01 AM IST
Updated: Nov 18, 2013 03:46:16 PM IST
Michael Bloomberg: The Exit Interview
Image: Michael Prince for Forbes

City Hall will never look like this again: The hive that is the “bullpen”, with its desks strewn about the open space, and the staff—junior and senior—all buzzing around the King Bee himself, who sits in the middle of it all, just as he likes it. It’s an open-plan workspace style that Michael Bloomberg brought with him from his days as the head of his eponymous data company, designed to be fluid, interactive, decentralised and co-operative. Its efficacy depends upon how you feel about Bloomberg and his 12-year term as mayor of New York City.

On the wall overlooking the bright room is a prominent countdown clock that shows just more than two months left in what has arguably been the most transformative mayoral reign in New York City’s history. There were wins (the smoking ban, gun control, the overhauled city waterfront, the changed law that enabled a third term) and losses (the Olympic bid, the soda ban). But what the reign most profoundly demonstrated is the power of an extremely wealthy man who is beholden to no special interests. Bloomberg effectively created his own special interests and used the government to turn a city into a data-driven, health-conscious image … of himself.

On a sunny day in the fall, I caught up with Bloomberg, 71. He was relaxed, in a valedictory mood, drinking a cup of coffee while plucking at a handful of SunChips. He talked about a future in which his influence—thanks to his $31 billion fortune and his passion for public service—may even grow.

Forbes: Let’s get to the big question: What’s next for you?
On January 1, I am going to my successor’s inauguration, assuming I’m invited. And on January 2, my girlfriend [Diana Taylor] and I are going on our first vacation in 12 years, to Hawaii and New Zealand, to play golf. We’ll be playing with [hedge fund billionaire] Julian Robertson—on a good day I shoot a few strokes under 90. Then I’ll end up in China to give some speeches on behalf of the company.

Forbes: That’s it?
Look, I will stay involved in the cases I care about. I’m not just going to give away money. I want to be involved with guns and immigration and innovation and government and public health. Exactly how, I don’t know. I will certainly continue to work with the 63 cities signed up for our climate leadership group, and I just agreed to become the chairman of the board of a small, avant-garde art museum in London [the Serpentine Gallery]. Those things will lead to a lot of other things. I can tell you what I won’t do. I’m not going to become a professional investor. I don’t want to teach. I don’t want to become a consultant. These things don’t appeal to me. I’m not going back to Bloomberg LP. I don’t want to start a new company. I want to do a number of different things. My life has always been structured: One job, 24/7. Everybody I’ve talked to who has been able to handle the transition from a place where everybody wants your opinion to one where nobody does—that’s overstating it a bit but not by much—their advice has always been there will be lots of interesting things that present themselves, and you don’t need to rush into it. Oh, yeah, I’m also going to work on my Spanish ... I want to speak Spanish like a native.

Forbes: But do you want to—can you—maintain your influence?
Part of the influence is from being the mayor of New York. I will no longer have that, so to some extent I won’t have that bully pulpit. On the other hand, I’ll have some time to work on things I’ve regretted that I haven’t had time to work on more. I can get more involved in Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Bill Clinton has worked very hard to keep himself relevant and make a difference, and he has. Bill Gates has done exactly the same thing.

Forbes: You’ve spoken recently about the growing importance of cities and city government. Expand on that idea.
Thirty years ago, the suburbs were the be-all, end-all. Today, cities are where things are happening. They deliver services, and you can measure it. Mayors have an actual record.

Forbes: As opposed to politicians in federal government?
The federal government still does things. In war and peace and famine, they still have a big say. It’s easy to criticise and say they do nothing. But federal governments around the world, their job is to redistribute wealth. Cities provide services. And with the exception of something like the military, the federal government does not. These are different jobs.

Forbes: Let’s talk about philanthropy. You have publicly stated that you plan to give away your entire fortune.
Everything I have goes to the foundation [Bloomberg Philanthropies]. My kids are taken care of. My company will eventually go to the foundation or be sold by the foundation.

Michael Bloomberg: The Exit Interview
Image: Michael Prince for Forbes
Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s three-term mayor and America’s tenth-richest person, in the centre of it all at City Hall

Forbes: Can philanthropy alone change the world?
We’ve focussed on smoking cessation, and a big part of the world is now smoke-free. We’ve focussed on malaria, working on a better mosquito that won’t carry the parasite. And outside of the foundation, I’ve been giving 501(c)(4) money to candidates around the country who have agendas to fight against guns and for education. But the problems of the world are very big and require enormous amounts of capital. Think about it: New York City spends $22 billion a year on its public school system. Private money can’t substitute for the public part because of the magnitude. But it does let you do things that you can’t do with public money. Private philanthropy can fund demonstration projects. With public money, you have to specify in advance what will happen, and if it doesn’t work, the press will say it’s a failure. What’s fascinating is that in science, if you go down a path and it turns out to be a dead end, that’s actually very valuable. It shuts off a channel. The bottom line is that you have to try a lot of things. This is where private money comes in. The essence of innovation is that you don’t know in advance if it will work, what it will look like, if people will buy it.

Forbes: You founded your Super PAC, Independence USA, in October of last year and funded some candidates in the 2012 elections. You ended up with a pretty impressive scorecard: 21 wins, 7 losses.
I don’t worry about scorecards. You could just support those who you are pretty sure will win if you want a great scorecard. To me any win is better than no wins. The real thing is to try to make a difference.

Forbes: Back to Bloomberg LP: Why not run it again?
I did it for 20 years. It would be a 24/7 job, which I don’t want to do. And we’ve got some very good people running it.

Forbes: Any concerns about the privacy breach from earlier this year, when some Bloomberg reporters used the Bloomberg terminals to extract subscribers’ private information?
That was a made-up thing. Twenty-five years ago, I came up with the idea that people have this terminal and they are paying us $20,000 a year, and if they’re not using it, we should call them. Some reporter looked at it and said that guys might not be there because he hasn’t logged in. Outside groups—Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley—are satisfied that nothing happened.

Forbes: You are rumoured to want to buy a newspaper. True?
I met the guy who publishes the FT, and my joke is that I buy it every day. I think there are three great newspapers: the FT, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The problem is they are not for sale, and I am not a newspaper person.

Forbes: You read them all?
I am someone who still reads in print. If I’m away, I may get newspapers online, but it’s not the same experience. I started to try to read Businessweek, The Economist and Smithsonian on Zinio and found myself four or five weeks behind. And so I went back to the paper versions.

Forbes: What do you think your legacy will be when all is said and done?
You want to leave the world a better place for your kids. From a selfish point of view, you want people to think you’ve done a great job. In this city, 8.5 million people are living on average 2.5 years longer than they did 12 years ago. Imagine if it went the other direction! Our problems here now are all problems of success. You say people can’t afford to live here, except that there are no vacancies. Our problem now is that everyone wants to go to our public schools. Traffic? If you don’t want traffic, go to Detroit.

What others are saying about Michael Bloomberg’s future

Walter Isaacson
President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, biographer and board member of Bloomberg Philanthropies
“He could be set up to be a leader of a centrist, pragmatic, data-driven, non ideological political movement in this country. Maybe it isn’t done by running for President on a third-party ticket. Maybe it’s done by creating a movement at the state and local levels. He could fund candidates in favour of school reform, fiscal responsibility, gun control and also a non-populist taxation policy, in other words, one that’s not ‘soak the rich.’”

Howard Wolfson
Counsellor to the mayor of New York City and a Democratic political strategist
“I think he’d be a great President. Come back and ask us in two and a half years.”

Mort Zuckerman
Co-founder and executive chairman of Boston Properties and owner of the New York Daily News
“The future can be anything he wants it to be. He’s got the bug of public service now, and he’ll find a way to make a huge contribution there.”

J Justin Wilson
Senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, the group responsible for the “nanny ad” that ran in national newspapers
“He’s been the imperial mayor. He will lose power now. There’s not much appetite in many jurisdictions to pursue what he wants to pursue. His money won’t change public opinion. You can’t buy people’s hearts and minds as he could buy the force of law of government.”

Paul Tudor Jones II
Founder of the Tudor Investment Corp
“The absolute breakdown of public education is the single biggest threat—internally and externally—that we have in this country. Bloomberg, I hope, will be the public figure of the effort to change this. He doesn’t know it, but I’m going to talk him into doing it. This would be his single greatest achievement.”

Kevin Sheekey
Head of government relations and communications at Bloomberg LP and former deputy mayor for government affairs
“Being mayor actually made him very local. The world is a big place, and there is a lot to do. In many ways, he’s taken a time-out from doing those things for the last 12 years.  And now that time-out is over.”

(This story appears in the 29 November, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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