Henry Hillman | Billionaire financier avoided spotlight but was one of the city’s most generous benefactors
Dec. 25, 1918 - April 14, 2017
April 15, 2017 12:50 AM
Henry Hillman talks to the media in 2005 announcing a $20 million gift to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.
Elsie and Henry Hillman share and laugh and a hold hands after a topping out ceremony at the Hillman Cancer Center in 2000.
Henry Hillman at a topping-out ceremony for the Hillman Cancer Center on Dec. 11, 2000.
Henry and Elsie Hillman, left, and Dan and Pat Rooney, right, make an appearance for the American Ireland Fund in 2004.
Henry Hillman, left, and Bill Gates celebrate the ribbon-cutting for the new Gates Center for Computer Science and the Hillman Center for Future-Generation Technologies at Carnegie Mellon University on Sept. 22, 2009.
By Patricia Sabatini / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Henry L. Hillman, the unpretentious Pittsburgh billionaire financier who quietly gave of his time and money to become one of the most generous benefactors in the city’s history, died Friday. He was 98.
Mr. Hillman died at about 7 p.m. Friday of age-related complications at UPMC Shadyside, where he had been hospitalized for the past few days.
His death was seen as a second sorrowful blow to a city still mourning the loss of another lifelong icon, Dan Rooney, chairman of the Steelers, who died Thursday.
Mr. Hillman’s business prowess propelled him ahead of the Mellon and Carnegie family heirs to become the wealthiest man in Pittsburgh and a perennial on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans.
For more than 30 years at the helm of the Hillman Co., Mr. Hillman excelled at buying and selling companies and properties at a profit.
But his biggest contribution came through his philanthropy. With his wife of more than 70 years, Elsie Hilliard Hillman who died in August 2015, the Hillman name came to embody the highest ideals of contributing to the common good throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.
Using his personal fortune and through the Hillman Foundation, started by his father in 1951, and the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, many of his most generous donations were in science, technology and medicine, fields in which Mr. Hillman had a keen interest.
In more recent years, a $10 million grant in 1999 established the Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s flagship cancer treatment and research facility. That was followed by a $20 million gift in 2005 to start the Hillman Fellow Program for Innovative Cancer Research at UPMC, the largest single grant in the university’s history.
A $10 million donation to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, also in 2005, established the Hillman Center for Pediatric Transplantation.
And in 2008, the Henry L. Hillman Foundation gave $10 million to Carnegie Mellon University for a research building, called the Hillman Center for Future-Generation Technologies, in the school’s new computer science complex.
Mr. Hillman reluctantly attached his name to major projects he funded, associates said, most often preferring to keep his donations private.
Mr. Hillman had stepped away from day-to-day operations at the Hillman Co. in the late 1980s and retired as chairman of the board in 1993 at the age of 75, although he remained chairman of the company’s executive committee. He remained intently focused on his charitable endeavors, coming to his Grant Street office into his 90s, driving himself, as he did to most places.
David Roger, president of the Hillman Foundation, saw Mr. Hillman as a role model for staying active and engaged late in life.
“He’s been at this a long time and hasn’t lost any enthusiasm,” Mr. Roger said in a 2009 interview. “He gets up every day thinking about the future. Every day is an opportunity” to find ways to benefit the region.
Mr. Hillman also was generous with his time, donating it freely to a wide range of causes.
“He should go down in the annals of this city as someone who made a difference,” Mr. Roger said.
Perennially upbeat, Mr. Hillman had a grand sense of humor, which included poking fun at himself. He often had a quip about his advancing age, saying he was afraid to order three-minute eggs or to invest in green bananas.
When someone retired at the Hillman Co., Mr. Hillman liked to participate in the send-off.
“We didn’t get through one of them without everyone doing belly laughs,” said one of Mr. Hillman’s longtime business associates, Bruce Crocker.
Mr. Hillman also was known for his graciousness, treating colleagues and low-level employees with equal measures of respect.
“He treats everyone the same, from the person who brings the mail around to company executives,” said Carl Grefenstette, who ran the Hillman Co. in the 1990s and served as Mr. Hillman’s loyal lieutenant for decades.
Mr. Hillman was deeply private. As head of the Hillman Co. his aversion to publicity was almost as legendary as his generosity. Variously called “invisible,” “the quiet billionaire” and “Pittsburgh’s high-rolling recluse” by the national business media, he shunned interviews, often repeating his motto that “the whale gets harpooned only when he spouts.”
In a rare interview granted to the Post-Gazette in late 2009 as he approached his 91st birthday, Mr. Hillman explained his distaste for publicity.
“We just don’t believe in tooting our horn and talking about things,” he said. “Call it modesty, or reticence or anything else, but I think it is the best way to be.”
On a personal level, Mr. Hillman was happy to leave the spotlight to his gregarious wife, Republican matriarch Elsie Hillman. He often teased that people knew him best as “Mr. Elsie Hillman” and liked to recount how he once received an autographed photo from President George H.W. Bush, a distant relative of Mrs. Hillman’s, warmly inscribed to “Elsie and Harvey.”
Mr. Hillman often said the best thing he ever did was marry the former Elsie Hilliard on May 12, 1945.
Growing up, Mr. Hillman’s family and the Hilliards were friends and often vacationed in the same spot in Canada.
“I knew her from the time she was a little girl,” Mr. Hillman said in his 2009 interview. Their marriage, in 1945, “was a pretty natural thing,” he said.
Mr. Hillman was born in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day 1918, the fifth of seven children and the second of two sons to John Hartwell “Hart” Hillman and Juliet Cummins Lea Hillman. His eldest sister, Juliet, was killed in a United Airlines accident when the plane crashed into a Wyoming hillside in October 1935 when he was 16.
Five years before Mr. Hillman was born, his father had formed J.H. Hillman & Sons in Pittsburgh.
The last of the city’s great industrial tycoons, Hart Hillman built an empire in coke, steel, coal and chemicals in the 1920s that included the forerunner to Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, and held interests in several banks that combined to form Pittsburgh National Bank, now PNC Financial Services Group.
Henry Hillman attended Shady Side Academy and graduated from the Taft boarding school in Watertown, Conn. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in geology from Princeton University in 1941 and then served as a pilot in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He trained as a fighter pilot but the war ended just as he was about to be deployed for combat.
At first, Mr. Hillman resented the timing.
“About two weeks later, it came to me how lucky I was,” he said in his 2009 interview. “I had all the wonderful training and flying, which I loved, and yet never had anybody shoot at me.”
Mr. Hillman never flew a plane again, preferring to focus on new endeavors.
“It’s like driving a truck for many years. You don’t want to necessarily keep on driving when you’ve done that,” he said.
After the war, Mr. Hillman joined Pittsburgh Coke & Chemical Co., in which the family had a minority interest, becoming president in 1955 at the age of 37.
He took the reins of the Hillman Co. when his father died in 1959, quickly transforming the company by jettisoning the old-line industrial businesses in favor investments in technology and real estate. He built a national reputation for his ability to read and respond to changes in the business environment and to identify start-up companies with growth potential.
At one time one of the biggest real estate developers and venture capitalists in the country, Mr. Hillman was a major force behind the development of Silicon Valley. His behind-the-scenes investments in fledgling high-technology companies in the 1970s and early 1980s were so huge that people at the time speculated it was the work of Arab investors secretly vying to control the region. To quell those rumors, Mr. Hillman made a rare public disclosure divulging his Silicon Valley holdings.
Mr. Hillman also helped bankroll the famed Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and New York City’s Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts, the private equity firm that popularized leveraged buyouts, in which a company is purchased with borrowed money using the company’s assets as collateral.
Mr. Hillman reveled in the business world, so much so that he begrudged taking time off.
“He said going on vacation was like being at a great play and having to get up and go to the rest room right before the best part,” Mr. Grefenstette remembered. “He took vacations very rarely. When he did, he wasn’t happy.”
Mr. Hillman was a “master negotiator” with a keen memory, Mr. Grefenstette said, adept at understanding the opposing side’s view. He should be remembered as “one of the leading businessmen this town has ever produced.”
At the height of his business career, Mr. Hillman served on the boards at 10 major companies, including Chemical Banking Corp. (Now J.P. Morgan Chase), PNC Financial and General Electric.
In his 2001 autobiography, the legendary General Electric CEO Jack Welch described Mr. Hillman as “an exciting entrepreneur, a risk taker, someone I loved to talk with.”
Mr. Hillman “never took himself too seriously,” Mr. Welch wrote, and “he abhorred pomposity.”
Close associates described Mr. Hillman as the perfect boss: Smart and able, pushing them to do their best but never harsh.
Mr. Hillman shared business smarts and an aversion to publicity with his father. But Mr. Hillman’s polite, soft-spoken personality was the antithesis of his gruff father, who was known for his ruthless business tactics.
In his 2009 interview, Mr. Hillman said his father reflected the business manner of the times.
“He started really almost from scratch,” Mr. Hillman said. “So you had to be pretty tough and focused to get along and do well.”
Mr. Hillman never worked directly for his father but the two spent many hours together talking about business. “We were very close,” Mr. Hillman said. He said on a personal level his father was “tender and kind” and that even in the business world, he never saw him do anything that would be interpreted as “heartless.”
Henry Hillman’s older brother, John H. Hillman III, who died in 1974 at age 63, was never involved in the family’s business. “He had a very independent streak in him,” Mr. Hillman explained.
Mr. Hillman had a long history of public service to the Pittsburgh region. As chairman of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development in the 1960s, he worked with leaders of the African-American community to help ease racial tensions.
He also served at various times with the Regional Industrial Development Corp. of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, Action Housing and the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Commission, among other public and private organizations. He was on the board of Children’s Hospital for more than 40 years.
For more than a decade, the Hillman Co. (headquartered in the Grant Building, the Downtown skyscraper his father built and Mr. Hillman later sold) owned the glistening neo-gothic 1.57 million-square-foot PPG Place office and retail complex Downtown, which the company purchased from PPG Industries in 1999 for $185 million and sold in 2011 for $179 million to a North Carolina real estate development trust.
In the 1980s, Mr. Hillman co-developed the 31-story Fifth Avenue Place at Stanwix Street and Liberty Avenue (built in 1988), later selling off his ownership stake to anchor tenant Highmark.
It was Mr. Hillman’s idea to use company and personal money to construct an ice rink and fountain in the main plaza at PPG Place a few years after purchasing the complex as gifts to the people of Pittsburgh. In his typical fashion, he stood on the sidelines while his wife, dressed as Santa Claus, took to the ice at the rink’s official opening.
The attractions transformed a sterile granite walkway in the heart of Downtown into a fun and inviting multi-seasonal gathering place.
“I was always pained by going there and seeing the totally empty plaza,” Mr. Hillman said in his 2009 interview. “I just thought, ‘What would the city like?’ ”
Mr. Hillman, who in his office prominently displayed a photograph of a young girl gleefully weaving through the dancing fountains, said it was gratifying that the attractions were “appreciated by so many people.”
A longtime supporter of the arts, Mr. Hillman donated millions over the years to the Carnegie Museum, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Pittsburgh Symphony.
The Hillman Foundation was the largest donor for the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library — a gift made in 1960 in memory of Mr. Hillman’s father — and for the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems at the Carnegie Library of Natural History, which opened in 1980.
Mr. Hillman’s diverse interests included architecture. He was involved in the design of many of the important projects he funded, including the Hillman Cancer Center, the Hillman Center for Future Generation Technologies and the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems.
For the latter, “We went through two architectural firms and one independent before we all, mainly Henry, agreed on a design,” said Ronald Wertz, former president of the Hillman Foundation. “Today it’s considered one of the best designed presentations of minerals in the country.”
Mr. Hillman also enjoyed playing the piano. In past years, he and his wife would sit at their two baby grand pianos and play duets for guests at their Squirrel Hill home.
At age 90, hoping to sharpen his skills, he embarked on his first piano lessons.
Looking back on his life in his 2009 interview, Mr. Hillman said he had no regrets, but lamented that he would be missing many great technological advances to come.
“It’s a terrible thing about being a bit older, you are not going to see the next 50 years,” he said. “Having lived through this tremendous [technological] revolution, it pains you to have to leave the movie when the movie is still going on.”
He said he was feeling well and agreed to another interview in nine years, on the eve of his 100th birthday.
Mr. Hillman said he had only one real tip for living a long and active life.
“I think moderation is the whole thing,” he said. “I really haven’t gone overboard in things.”
He said he wouldn’t change anything in his past, “primarily because I’ve had such a happily married life.”
He said the keys to a successful marriage included “mutual respect, tolerance and understanding.”
Saying “Yes, dear,” a lot doesn’t hurt, either, he joked.
As for what it was like to have so much money, Mr. Hillman said it allowed him to live “a perfectly nice life” and take care of his family for generations.
“Whatever you have, after a certain amount, it doesn’t make a bit of difference in your lifestyle,” he said. “We lead, in general, a pretty regular life. We’re not big spenders.”
Mr. Hillman said he would like to be remembered for “having done right” by his family and community. But he said he wasn’t counting on being remembered for long.
“I’m a big believer that memories of people are lost very, very quickly,” he said. “Unless you are Bernie Madoff,” he said with a chuckle. “He’ll be remembered for quite a while. But unless you become infamous, you’re not going to be remembered,” he said.
“As somebody said, it goes very quickly from ‘Who’s who to who’s he?’ ”
Mr. Hillman, a voracious reader of books and newspapers, said he admired accomplished international journalists such as Fareed Zakaria, formerly of Newsweek, who is now with CNN.
“Seeing him interview all these fascinating people and having the breadth of understanding that he has of the world. If I had regrets, it would be not having become someone like that,” Mr. Hillman said.
“That’s true of many people in many areas. You say, ‘Oh, I wish I had their life.’ On the other hand, you don’t know what else there is in their life that isn’t as good,” he said.
“So, I’m very happy.”
Mr. Hillman is survived by four children — Juliet Lea Hillman Simonds, Audrey Hillman Fisher, Henry L. Hillman Jr. and William Talbott Hillman — nine grandchildren and more than a dozen great-grandchildren.
Patricia Sabatini: email@example.com or 412-263-3066.
Correction (posted April 17, 2017): The date of Elsie Hillman’s death has been corrected.
Below is a video tribute to Elsie Hillman following her death in 2015:
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.