Warren Hellman, Haas Board Member and San Francisco Financier, Passes Away

Warren Hellman - at the tenth annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival
Warren Hellman plays his banjo at the tenth annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival

Longtime Berkeley-Haas benefactor Warren Hellman, BA 55, a successful financier and San Francisco power broker, passed away Sunday evening from complications from Leukemia treatment. He was 77.

Hellman was a member of the Haas Board, which advises the dean, since 1987 and gave generously to both the Haas School and UC Berkeley. Last year the Haas School awarded Hellman with its Lifetime Achievement Award to recognize his countless accomplishments in finance and wide-ranging philanthropic activities, from the San Francisco Bluegrass Festival to The Bay Citizen. In 2006, the Haas School’s Lester Center for Entrepreneurship awarded Hellman its Lifetime of Achievement in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Award.

“Warren was a man of great humility and an unbridled zest for life,” Dean Rich Lyons said. “He was a friend and a trusted adviser to me and many deans before me. For the past 25 years, he has lent an invisible guiding hand to many Berkeley-Haas initiatives to help us do what is right, what is best, and what is bold. We will miss him dearly.”

Born into a banking family, Hellman triple-majored in economics, political science, and history while playing varsity water polo at UC Berkeley. After graduation, Hellman served in the Army and earned an MBA at his father’s alma mater, Harvard Business School. He said his family connections helped him get his first post-MBA job at Lehman Brothers. But he quickly proved himself and became the firm’s youngest partner at the age of 26. By 36, he was president.

Eventually turned off by the cut-throat culture at Lehman, Hellman left investment banking and in 1976 co-founded a venture capital firm in Boston now called Matrix Partners.

With his roots in the Bay Area calling him back, Hellman returned to San Francisco and co-founded the private equity firm, Hellman & Friedman in 1984. He stepped down as chairman in 2010 but remained on the firm’s investment committee. The firm’s biggest investment successes included advertising firm Young & Rubicom and Internet advertising firm Doubleclick.

Concerned about the dearth of local news amid newspaper layoffs, Hellman provided $5 million in seed money to found The Bay Citizen last year. The online news website has partnered with UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the New York Times, which publishes Bay Citizen articles twice a week in a Bay Area section.

But Hellman’s contributions to UC extend far beyond The Bay Citizen. In 2004, he joined three partners to endow Cal’s aquatics program, including water polo. In 1994, Hellman and his family gave a $5 million gift to create the Hellman Fellows Program, which has supported the research of more than 200 junior faculty.

Hellman also supported the San Francisco Foundation, which funds such causes as park cleanups and housing for the poor, and the San Francisco Free Clinic, which serves indigent people and was founded by Hellman’s doctor daughter, Patricia Hellman Gibbs.

In the Bay Area, however, Hellman was probably best known for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which he bankrolled for more than 10 years. Since Hellman started the festival with 12 bands and 13,000 people at Golden Gate Park, it has exploded into a free, three-day event that attracts 750,000 people to hear 80 bands, including Hellman’s bluegrass band, The Wronglers.

In 2006, when Hellman received his lifetime achievement award from the Haas School’s Lester Center, he downplayed his generosity. “What people don’t realize is that this is so damn selfish,” Hellman said of the bluegrass festival. “People keep saying thank you, thank you, and that’s nice, but I feel like I ought to be saying thank you, thank you, for liking this music and for coming.”

Hellman is survived by his wife, Patricia Christina Sander Hellman; four children; 12 grandchildren; and one great grandchild.

A memorial service will be held Wednesday, Dec. 21, at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, and will be followed within a few weeks by a community celebration of Hellman’s life, according to The Bay Citizen. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the San Francisco Free Clinic, The Bay Citizen, and the San Francisco School Alliance.

Read about Warren Hellman in CalBusiness.

(Photos by Robert Houser)