H. Fitzgerald “Gerry” & Marguerite Lenfest

Marciene Mattleman
Joan Myers Brown

Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest are not typical billionaires: they do not employ servants to clean their house, they do not fly first class, and they cook for and clean up after their dinner guests. The Lenfests did not inherit their wealth. Gerry and Marguerite’s wealth derived from the sale of their cable business, Suburban Cable, to AT&T in 1999. The transaction was valued at slightly over $7 billion; the couple personally received approximately $1.2 billion dollars for their stake. Rather than retire affluent and anonymous, they decided to use the proceeds of the sale of Suburban Cable to fund acts of philanthropy.

T he Lenfests earned the 2008 Philadelphia Award in recognition of their “generous support of many of the city’s civic and cultural institutions, including the Art Museum, the Curtis Institute, and the Kimmel Center.” Pew Charitable Trust president Rebecca W. Rimel stated, “I don’t think…any other two individuals have stepped up in such a bold fashion and have given so much of themselves and their resources to not only making Philadelphia a rich community, but also the role that they have played on a national stage.”

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..

B y 2009 the Lenfests had given away or committed close to an estimated $800 million. The Chronicle of Philanthropy announced in its 2008 annual list of top charitable donors that Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest had given away nearly $140 million – “more than all but five other living individuals or couples” at that time. Most of the Lenfests charitable contributions have been committed to artistic, cultural or educational institutions.

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.”