In 1974, Gerry Lenfest borrowed $2.3 million dollars and bought a cable business with 7,600 subscribers in Lebanon, Pennsylvania from Walter Annenberg’s media company, Triangle Publications, where he managed Seventeen magazine and worked as a staff attorney. The couple, who were in their 40’s and had three young children at the time of the acquisition, operated the business, literally, at the kitchen table of their home. Marguerite reflected on their foray as entrepreneurs: “We had confidence in ourselves. He was a lawyer and could always go back to that. I was a schoolteacher and could go back to that. . . I don’t think we analyzed things the way they do today.” Over the years, Suburban Cable was transformed into one of the nation’s largest “cable ‘clusters.’” At the time of the sale to AT&T in the late 1990’s, the Lenfests’ cable business was the Philadelphia region’s largest with 1.2 million subscribers.
Although the Lenfests have made donations to causes throughout the world, several organizations in Philadelphia and the surrounding area have greatly benefited from their largesse. Gerry oversees the couple’s largest gifts, and has conceded that he is “the more impulsive and liberal giver,” whereas Marguerite “is the more practical and conservative giver” who tries to measure the impact of the gift on the recipient before making a decision..
The Lenfests decided against setting up a perpetual foundation, because so often foundations stray from the vision and priorities of their founders. The couple set up a charitable foundation to give away “every last penny” within twenty years of the last one’s death. They will not bequeath any of their money to their three children, who each earned a fortune of their own from the sale of their ownership in the family business. In fact, taking a cue from their parents, the children have all set up their own foundations.
Gerry Lenfest says of his philanthropy: “There is a lot of pleasure in life just to have your funds go the way you feel it will provide the most good.”