Carl Lindner Jr., chairman of American Financial Group Inc., shown acknowledging the crowd at the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011 in Mason, Ohio. Lindner has died at the age of 92. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
CINCINNATI (AP) — Carl Lindner Jr., a publicity-shy Cincinnati financier known for a shrewdness that forged a business empire, was praised Tuesday for his willingness to help worthy causes and for never forgetting his roots.
Linder, whose wide range of businesses over the years included baseball, insurance and banks, died Monday at age 92.
Lindner was surrounded by his wife, sons and other family members when he died of causes related to age, his Cincinnati-based company, American Financial Group Inc., said in a statement Tuesday. A person close to the family told The Associated Press that Lindner had been taken to a hospital gravely ill Monday morning.
Lindner was chairman of American Financial Group, a publicly traded financial holding company now reporting more than $30 billion in assets. In 2009, Forbes magazine estimated Lindner’s personal wealth at $1.75 billion, placing him among the 400 richest Americans.
“We’ve lost a giant,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said Tuesday.
Lindner doled out millions of dollars to both political parties and to issue campaigns and hosted lavish fundraisers at his Ohio and Florida homes — including one for presidential candidate George H.W. Bush at his home in 1988. He also played host to Bush and Francois Mitterand, then president of France, at his vacation home in Ocean Reef, Fla.
“He was arguably the most politically influential person from the private sector that I’ve ever encountered in politics,” said Curt Steiner, a Republican consultant who served in the administration of former Ohio Gov. George Voinovich.
Lindner became controlling partner and chief executive officer of the Cincinnati Reds in a 1999 deal that ended Marge Schott’s rocky 15-year reign as owner. In contrast to her grandstanding, Lindner stayed mostly in the background — save for a lasting memory in 2000 when he picked up Ken Griffey Jr. at the airport in his Rolls-Royce following the blockbuster trade.
“Carl was a true friend, and that friendship lasted outside of and beyond our years with the Reds,” Griffey said, in a statement released through the Reds. “He taught me many life lessons and was extremely generous to my entire family. His generosity to many other people and to the entire Cincinnati area will be felt for many generations to come.”
Lindner, who sold his controlling interest in the Reds in 2005, ruled over a complex maze of corporations with nearly 70,000 employees worldwide.
American Financial Group owned, or held substantial investments in, Charter Co., marketer of fuel to electric utilities; Chiquita Brands International Inc., one of the world’s largest food producers, and Great American Insurance Co.
Lindner’s financial support for the University of Cincinnati, which named its business school after him, and various charities earned him a reputation as a philanthropist.
University of Cincinnati President Gregory Williams said he saw Lindner last week and “he was as gracious and kind as ever.”
“What more people should know about Mr. Lindner is his inspiring life, and of his efforts to guide generations to succeed the right way,” Williams said.
Some business critics considered him a ruthless takeover artist. He made millions in the 1970s and 1980s by investing, then retreating, from companies. He bought The Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper in 1971 and sold it in 1975.
An alleged attempt by Lindner to take over Gannett Co. prompted former chairman Al Neuharth to call him a “shark in sheep’s clothing.”
Lindner made a name for himself as one of Michael Milken’s earliest and most prominent junk-bond players, but also predicted a decline in the junk-bond market in the late 1980s.
“Of course, Carl was always a couple years ahead of the pack,” said James Dahl, a former bond seller for Milken.
Lindner had a reputation for working long hours pursuing deals.
“I’m working over 80 hours a week and have to keep on track,” he once told a reporter in explaining why he usually refused interview requests. Even in his later years, he showed no signs of slowing down.
House Speaker John Boehner, described Lindner as a “job creator who truly loved Cincinnati.”
“Never a man to turn down a worthy cause, Carl’s generosity touched countless lives,” the Ohio Republican said Tuesday.
Lindner “understood the impact that his money could have on people and causes in our community,” Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, a Democrat, said Tuesday.
Lindner paid his staff handsomely and threw lavish annual parties for them. At his 70th birthday party, Frank Sinatra entertained.
Lindner’s fortunes began to slide in the late 1980s with the acquisition of Taft Broadcasting, a Cincinnati television and radio company.
The $1.5 billion takeover in 1987 left the new company, Great American Communications, mired in debt. It was forced to sell several key assets in a short time, including cartoon creator Hanna-Barbera Productions.
In 1992, Lindner suffered losses of $560 million at Great American Communications and $284 million at Chiquita, leading to a $77 million loss at American Financial. In 1993, Lindner filed for “prepackaged” bankruptcy to restructure debts of Great American Communications.
Carl Henry Lindner Jr. was born in Dayton in 1919 but spent much of his youth in Norwood, a blue-collar suburb of Cincinnati. He eventually moved to Indian Hill, where most of Cincinnati’s rich and famous live.
Lindner, along with brothers Robert and Richard and sister Dorothy, helped his parents in a succession of dairy businesses in Dayton and then in Cincinnati. He never finished high school because he was so busy.
In 1940, Lindner’s father opened one of the nation’s first cash-and-carry milk and dairy stores, in Norwood. That launched what became the United Dairy Farmers convenience store chain.
During World War II, with his father’s health failing and his brothers being called into military service, Lindner began to direct UDF. By the mid-1960s, when Lindner left UDF to Robert’s direction, the chain had more than 100 stores. That number has since more than doubled.
Lindner founded the cornerstone of his financial empire, American Financial Corp., in 1959. From 1961 until the company went private in 1981, American Financial’s portfolio made more than 60 times its original investment as Lindner diversified into banks, insurance and assorted industries. American Financial Corp. merged with American Premier Underwriters in 1995 to form the publicly traded American Financial Group.
Lindner had three sons with his second wife, Edyth Bailey: Carl H. Lindner III, 58, co-CEO of American Financial Group and chairman of Great American Insurance Co.; S. Craig Lindner, 56, co-CEO of American Financial Group, chairman of American Money Management and president and CEO of Great American Financial Resources; and Keith Lindner, 52, a former official at Chiquita.
Details about funeral arrangements and a memorial service are pending, the company statement said.
Associated Press writers Janet McMillan in Philadelphia Julie Carr Smyth and Doug Whiteman in Columbus and Dan Sewell in Cincinnati and AP Baseball Writer Joe Kay in Cincinnati contributed to this report.