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A Rainmaker For Human Rights



It's planting time in the Midwest again, and after last year's epic deluge, farmers and agriculture executives alike are praying for sunny skies. Joseph P. Sullivan is praying, too. But after making and marketing fertilizer for 30 years, the chairman of Chicago-based Vigoro Corp. knows there isn't much to be done about the weather.

Sullivan reserves most of his fretting these days for the maelstrom of human-rights abuses sweeping across the globe. There are many who would say the problems of Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, and Central America are as intractable as a stubborn low-pressure system. But Sullivan has spent large portions of his time and $2 million over the past four years trying to right the swelling flood of wrongs. "It's very difficult to make sense of it," says the paunchy, 61-year-old executive glumly. "But the bottom line is you've got to keep trying and working for basic human rights."

Practical idealist. Joe Sullivan is a rare commodity on the American business scene. On the one hand, he's a savvy '80s-style dealmaker who made millions by successfully playing the leveraged-buyout game. On the other, he's a Boston-bred liberal idealist who has spent lavishly to further the causes he believes in, from human rights to immigrant aid to Democratic politics. "He's a very practical businessman with an uncommon sense of public service," says longtime friend Senator Paul Simon (D-Ill.). "He doesn't want his tombstone to read: 'Joe Sullivan made lots of bucks.'"

Sullivan certainly has made money. He started in the late 1950s as a junior executive in the fertilizer business of what was then known as Swift & Co. He rose quickly as Chairman Donald P. Kelly--one of the deal era's most prolific acquisitors--built Swift into a booming food conglomerate called Esmark Inc. By 1980, Sullivan was head of Esmark's biggest unit and Kelly's heir apparent. But in 1983, he left with fellow Esmark executive Jay D. Proops to make acquisitions. Deftly using the LBO structure--and the backing of Chicago financier Sam Zell--they created Vigoro. Since it went public in 1991, the stock has doubled, and Sullivan's initial $175,000 investment is now worth $27 million.

But all the while, Sullivan stood out as a persistent liberal gadfly within Chicago's staunchly conservative business community. As far back as the '60s, he and his wife, Jeanne, were strong civil-rights proponents and early supporters of Eugene McCarthy's Presidential campaign. "These were not exactly the things guys talked about over cocktails or golf," recalls Chicago consultant Neal Ball, an old friend. Despite his singularity, however, Sullivan got along in both worlds. Ball is a former Nixon Administration press aide and a self-described "bleeding-heart conservative."

Long haul. Sullivan's ability to bridge the gap between the monied set and the activist community is a key component of his success as a rainmaker. Human rights, after all, is an issue most people can agree on. In recent years, he has focused his efforts on the American Refugee Committee (ARC), an organization founded by Ball in 1978. It sends American doctors and nurses to refugee camps around the world to train local medics to help their own populations. Two years ago, fearful that the spotlight on human rights would shift away from Central America as civil wars wound down there, the Sullivans also founded a program at DePaul University to document abuses and train Central American lawyers.

All told, Sullivan gives away the equivalent of his Vigoro salary annually. This year, he and his wife ponied up an extra $100,000 for a $500,000 ARC fund for hot spots such as Bosnia. As they help tap donors for the rest, they will--as always--present the case in business terms. ARC staffers are often asked to dredge up facts such as how much it costs to train a medic in a Thai refugee camp who will return to Cambodia to treat thousands of villagers.

Joe and Jeanne certainly don't skimp on the good life. There are art-filled homes in Chicago, Santa Fe, and La Jolla, Calif. And though Joe lends considerable time and management expertise to favored programs, most of the Sullivans' patron activity doesn't get dirt under their fingernails. Often, they open their Chicago home or rent out the Ritz-Carlton dining room for an old-fashioned "salon." Invited are an eclectic mix of friends--from Chicago ward politicians to UAL Corp. Chairman Stephen M. Wolf and retired Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt. There are always featured guests: human-rights lawyers from Central America, for instance, or a teenage theater troupe from Santa Fe--kids whose families have been affected by substance abuse. And there is usually a direct pitch for funds.

"Speak up." Friends trace Sullivan's sense of noblesse oblige to his upbringing in a lower-middle-class Boston neighborhood filled with Irish and Jewish immigrants. Tales of the Holocaust and the hard-scrabble existence in early 20th century Ireland left a searing impression. "You only have one chance in this world," he says. "If you feel strongly, you've got to speak up." He attended Harvard on scholarship and earned an MBA. But "Joe sees business as a means to an end," says college buddy Desmond R. LaPlace, vice-chairman of ACCO World Corp. "It's a way to generate funds to do other things."

That's not to say he doesn't enjoy his vocation. After leaving Esmark a decade ago, he seriously considered academia or full-time charitable work. What led him back to business, he frankly admits, was the thrill of the chase. "Was it fun doing deals? You bet it was," he says.

Now, with many '80s-era LBOs brought down by financial excesses, Sullivan often has to defend the process. In a March speech to Catholic business leaders, he tried to dispel the notion that an ethical LBO is an oxymoron. At Vigoro, with revenues of about $700 million, he has pushed incentive bonuses to employees as far down as those in the company's rural farm-center stores. New-job training is available, as is counseling for emotional and substance-abuse problems. Vigoro, like many fertilizer companies, has been fined for Environmental Protection Agency violations despite Sullivan's dictum that it will be "environmentally friendly." But the boss has since revised internal standards and, for now, all complaints are settled.

Overall, Sullivan argues that 20 years from now, the good LBOs will be vindicated. "It will be qeen to have helped make American business competitive," he says. He's not so sanguine about the refugee problem. When he joined Ball's ARC, the plan was to address an acute need in Cambodia and be done with it in 18 months. "God knows, it's discouraging when you see a Bosnia or a Rwanda," he says. But Joe Sullivan doesn't give in to discouragement easily.


BORN Apr. 10, 1933 in Boston.

EDUCATION Harvard University, BA--history (1954), Harvard business school, MBA (1956).

ESMARK Joins agriculture chemical unit of Esmark's predecessor, Swift & Co., in 1959. Chairman Don Kelly names him CEO of Esmark's then-ailing food unit in 1980.

VIGORO Resigns from Esmark in 1983 to start LBO fund with Esmark colleague Jay Proops. In 1985, with backing from Chicago financier Sam Zell, Sullivan begins buying up fertilizer and farm-supply companies. Takes resulting company, Vigoro Corp., public in spring of 1991. His stake: $27 million.

PHILANTHROPY Annual giving budget: $500,000. Major donor to American Refugee Committee and to Travelers & Immigrants Aid. Founder of Jeanne & Joseph Sullivan Program for Human Rights in the Americas at DePaul University, 1992. Staunch supporter of Democratic candidates.

DATA: BUSINESS WEEKRichard A. Melcher in Chicago

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