Dick Simmons: A 'passion' for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
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The refrain one hears with Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra savior Dick Simmons is "passion."
When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his alma mater, opened a new dormitory called Simmons Hall in 2002, it became an architectural hit, tapped as Boston's best building three years later. But before it went up, student leaders complained that their ideas for the building were getting shut out of planning. That led to a closed-door meeting with Mr. Simmons, who was putting up $20 million for the hall.
Instead of talking about architecture, the 1953 graduate emphasized to MIT administrators the importance of his life as a student, which signaled the protesting youngsters would get the voice they wanted. Tough on the outside, gooey in the middle, Mr. Simmons was exactly what the kids needed, said former MIT student Jeff Roberts.
"He does have kind of a stoic demeanor, but when he talks about things he's passionate about, he's visibly sensitive to issues," said Mr. Roberts, now a city planner in Cambridge, Mass.
The same passion is leading to a new lease on life for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Simmons, the former head of Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp., announced a $29.5 million gift to the PSO in late November that is among the biggest private gifts ever to an American orchestra.
The money is part of an $80 million capital campaign led by Mr. Simmons, the orchestra's board chairman, with hopes of keeping it one of the best orchestras in the country and a Pittsburgh jewel for many years into the future.
"I don't like losing, and I've been successful most of my life," Mr. Simmons said recently. "I want to do everything I can in whichever way I can do it, and one part of it is trying to set the example for this capital campaign.
"My wife likes to say you have a passion about the orchestra -- and I do."
Mr. Simmons and his late first wife, Dorothy, started going to the symphony after returning to Allegheny Ludlum and Pittsburgh in 1968. The young executive -- who would become president of the company four years later -- knew little about classical music -- he grew up on Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby -- but learned through repeated visits, reading the program notes and listening, as if it was on-the-job training.
His company, and steel itself, also was going through growing pains. Its parent, Allegheny International, started making noises about selling Ludlum in 1978, flirting with a sale to former Dallas Cowboys owner Clint Murchison before Mr. Simmons led a management buyout in 1980. Six years later he led another buyout, of lead investor George Tippins.
"I remember sitting on the edge of the bed with my wife, Dorothy, when we were going to buy George Tippins out, saying 'We've been poor and we've been rich and we might be poor again,' " Mr. Simmons said.
The son of a Bridgeport, Conn., service station owner -- who spent years worrying about paying off his MIT loans -- was soon a very rich man.
The next year, in May 1987, Mr. Simmons took the company public -- his stake was worth $203 million and put him on the Forbes list of richest Americans. (Mr. Simmons ultimately left as CEO of the company, renamed Allegheny Technologies, after Dorothy became ill in 1999.)
Sewickley neighbor Ed Clarke said Mr. Simmons has remained unchanged, across some three decades they've known each other.
"He comes across more severe and tough than he really is, largely influenced by the fact that he started with nothing," Mr. Clarke said.
He caught a glimpse of that once as the steel magnate was building his house in Sewickley, on a plot formerly owned by the late H.J. Heinz (the other major philanthropist in the history of the PSO, though the two men were only passing acquaintances).
"He had this new, big house, and my wife and I went over during the building process," Mr. Clarke said. "Sitting on the table in the family room are these old beat-up coasters and I asked him what they're doing there. He says, 'They're the first set we could afford and there to remind me where I came from.' "
Passion is one theme, consistency another. Mr. Simmons, 75, became an expert in Chinese cooking after learning from a Chinese classmate at MIT. He is so committed that he has air-dried duck on a tree branch to make Peking duck and made sweet-and-sour sauce from baby food. He cooks from the same Chinese cookbook a girlfriend gave him in 1953.
Staying the course extends to his wardrobe.
"I went to MIT and I had a grey flannel suit, some white button-down shirts and a sport jacket. That was it. If you were to ask me what I'm wearing today I dress exactly the same way," he said last week.
The single greatest change was making that $203 million in 1987. Since then, he estimates he has given away or pledged $100 million.
Hooked on the PSO
The R.P. Simmons family (including son Brian of Chicago and daughter Amy Sebastian of Sewickley) has issued that money to a raft of schools and museums, to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and scores of other smaller nonprofits.
The gifts included the $20 million donation to MIT for a new dormitory, $5 million to Pitt to establish a research center on interstitial lung disease and $5 million to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for an exhibition hall. They included scholarships to Pitt, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, Washington & Jefferson and for minority students at Sewickley Academy.
Mr. Simmons also seeded the Birchmere Investments venture capital fund with $20 million in 1996 to support new Western Pennsylvania technology companies.
The PSO is his current passion, and his money and leadership comes with exacting demands about the orchestra's finances, governance and future.
Mr. Simmons was the symphony's board chairman in the early 1990s, and before returning as chairman in 2003, he demanded fundamental changes in its governing structure. Where previously the lead volunteer for the symphony (typically a city business leader) was also its president and CEO, Mr. Simmons pushed for a more business-oriented model, changing the bylaws to make an outside, paid official the head of its overall operations.
He led the search committee for that new leader -- current president Larry Tamburri -- then assisted with a financial overhaul that would eventually lead to his $29.5 million gift.
"Dick Simmons, in my judgment, had an incredibly important role throughout at least the last 15 years and maybe longer" at the symphony, said his predecessor as board leader, attorney Thomas Todd.
The symphony last led a capital campaign (which Mr. Simmons also chaired) in 1993, buoyed by a $20 million gift from the Heinz Endowments. Back then, it was using about 14 percent of its endowment proceeds to pay its operating expenses ("which is like a squirrel eating its acorns," Mr. Simmons said) but has since winnowed that down to about 6.5 percent, with the goal of minimizing it further.
The gift announced late last year is structured to keep the orchestra on a sound financial path: It gets $7.5 million upfront to help with operating expenses; $5 million in increments as the orchestra raises another $25 million; and $17 million upon Simmons' death, as long as it has had three years of balanced budgets.
The official goal of the gift and its accompanying $80 million capital campaign is to beef up the symphony's endowment. It is also hoped to challenge other city stakeholders -- from corporations to individual donors -- to give something similarly substantial, to keep the stellar reputation of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra intact for the long term.
"Being a businessman I began to recognize that if we didn't deal with our financial problems it wouldn't matter how good we were or how many other things we changed. ... At the same time [the symphony had to] continue to remain competitive in the world of music and to build our reputation," Mr. Simmons said.
For Mr. Simmons, doing something for the orchestra and doing something for Pittsburgh became the same thing. That as much as anything inspired him to give the orchestra so much money and leadership energy over the years.
"If you talk about the city of Pittsburgh, we've got lots of great things here -- not just the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Carnegie and the great health facilities -- but in the area of performing arts. People know and speak about the Pittsburgh Symphony. So perhaps that's when the hook got in."
A price to be paid
Allegheny Ludlum became very successful, even as the parent that spurned it, AI, went into bankruptcy. Under Mr. Simmons, Ludlum invested in research, cut labor costs (though restoring wage and benefit concessions when times were good) and fully funded pension plans. Firms that Allegheny Technologies acquired in the late 1990s that specialized in titanium -- also Mr. Simmons' specialty -- are still doing well today.
All that success did not come without making enemies.
A longtime Republican activist -- he hosted a fund-raiser last March for Sen. Rick Santorum attended by President Bush -- Mr. Simmons publicly broke with the Reagan administration over its refusal to block cheap steel imports. He made still-bitter enemies in the United Steelworkers of America when he battled the union during a 70-day strike in 1994, Ludlum's first since an industrywide strike in 1959.
After the strike, the Steelworkers won generous contract terms and Allegheny Ludlum suffered its first losing quarter since its 1980 buyout.
Walt Hill, the current president of USW Local 1196 at Allegheny's Brackenridge plant and a union committeeman in 1994, said there will always be ill feelings between both sides after a work stoppage, but overall had praise for Mr. Simmons' leadership.
"He was a tough negotiator, but in my opinion it's unfair to describe his legacy with one event. He built the company into what it is. ... The steel industry across the country was really hurting and he was able to bring us back to prosperity. We enjoyed some very good years under his leadership," Mr. Hill said.
Mr. Simmons also faced legal battles, most prominently in 1991, when two former Ludlum executives sued, saying they were cheated out of millions of dollars when they retired in 1986, not knowing he would take the company public the next year.
The jury ruled for Mr. Simmons, who, during his testimony, uttered a line he still uses in speeches today.
When he made his $203 million after the stock offering, he said, "I felt I was the luckiest man in the world."
Being in the right place at the right time -- that, Dick Simmons says, has happened to him his entire life:
Born during the Depression but too late to serve in World War II. Being an expert in titanium steel, which would be a boon to the specialty steel industry. Taking his company public just five months before the October 1987 stock market crash.
But it was being in the right place at the wrong time that drives the third act in Mr. Simmons' story, when he became the millionaire savior to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Simmons' wife Dorothy died in early 2001 of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease for which there is no known cause or cure. The retired steel executive stayed out of the public eye for a year before going, slowly, back to the PSO again, hating to be alone, so tagging along as a third wheel with other couples.
Eventually he began attending concerts with another recently widowed fan and friend of 25 years from Sewickley, Ginny Moyles, and would marry her in late 2004. During the same time he started forging friendships with PSO musicians, re-engaging himself with the orchestra.
"Through all of these things," Mr. Simmons said in a recent interview, "I got to know many of the musicians and got to respect their ability -- they were just tremendous.
"And I also began to recognize how important it was and is for us to maintain a world class orchestra in Pittsburgh, that goes anyplace in the world and, when you say the word 'Pittsburgh' to a music lover, they say, 'ah, you have a great orchestra.' "Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Dick Simmons sits in his Pittsburgh office on Wednesday. For Mr. Simmons, doing something for the orchestra and doing something for Pittsburgh became the same thing.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published January 14, 2007 12:00 am