Warren Hellman Plays Up Bluegrass Roots

Private equity guru Warren Hellman brings bluegrass to the masses.


It’s a rare fogless August day in San Francisco when a thin and sprightly Warren Hellman, 75, strolls into his glass-walled corner office in the landmark One Maritime Plaza. “I think the other partners are embarrassed by this,” he says, gesturing toward piles of CDs, photographs, thank-you cards and posters stacked around the perimeter of the room and spilling across a ledge, burying a couple of banjos.

True, the scene looks more backstage party den than high-finance control room, but Hellman, chairman and co-founder of private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, is not one to bother with partitions between his work and private lives. Right now it’s the latter that rules his days and his heart.

Although he grew up in California, far from the screened porches and music halls of Kentucky and Tennessee, Hellman has been a bluegrass and roots fan for as long as he can remember. “This music is just hardwired into me,” he explains. Nine years ago the multimillionaire once known as Hurricane Hellman (at age 28 he became the youngest employee to make partner at Lehman Brothers Holdings, where he later became president) decided to apply his dogged determination to supporting bluegrass acts: He started a music festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Launched as a two-day, 12-band show, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival has mushroomed into a three-day party that sprawls over six stages and attracts some 700,000 people. This year’s lineup of about 80 acts included big names such as the Chieftains, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Nick Lowe, Steve Martin (the actor plays the banjo) and Earl Scruggs. Hellman’s own band, The Wronglers, in which he plays the banjo, also takes a slot in the festival, which runs October 2 to 4 this year.

The free festival has become a joyous autumn ritual for Bay Area residents and music fans from around the world. Hellman foots the bill every year — partly because he appreciates the adoration it brings him, he admits, but mostly because doing so satisfies his philanthropic impulse, which also drives him to support a handful of other causes, including the San Francisco public school system. As a Wells Fargo heir and a great-grandson of Isaias Hellman, a Jewish immigrant who built California’s first banks and transformed the state’s economy, Hellman feels indebted to the land that brought his family its wealth. “There’s a saying: Money is like manure,” says Hellman, whose firm has managed more than $16 billion and invested in more than 50 companies in its 25-year history. “Spreading manure across a field that allows half a million people to get transported is as rewarding a thing as you can possibly do.”

Staging the Hardly Strictly festival requires a dose of business acumen that is second nature to the private equity veteran — he has to bid for performers and negotiate fees for crew and vendors, and he certainly ruffled some feathers when he pushed, successfully, for an underground parking lot to be built in Golden Gate Park in 2004. But in truth the work offers him respite from the culture of finance that, as festival producer Dawn Holliday observes, “just isn’t him.” Hellman agrees.

“In the world of music, people are enormously supportive. My band played a gig last week, and when we came off, the other band said, ‘You guys were great!’ You don’t see one investment banker saying to another, ‘Boy, you did a great job with that IPO of Slo-Mo Industries.’ In private equity, people tend to be nastily competitive.”

Unlike at other festivals, where bands parachute in, play an hourlong set and leave, the musicians are invited to stick around all three days (Hellman picks up the cost of food and lodging on top of the $1,500 to $2,000 per act he pays), and many do. Steve Earle has been known to sleep on-site. Emmylou Harris was jamming with other bands throughout the festival. “He’s able to take his success in the business world and turn it into this extraordinary event,” she tells II. “The festival combines some of the best acts in American music and up-and-comers.”

As an investor, Hellman pores over numbers and financial statements. As festival head he looks for clever lyrics and a strong voice. He samples at least two songs from each of the ten or so CDs mailed to him daily by hopeful musicians. “I listen for a few minutes, and I wait to see if it resonates,” he explains. “I know I like something if I think to myself, I don’t want this to end.” And if Hellman doesn’t want it to end, there’s a good chance it won’t.