Monday, June 19, 2000

'Darling of the arts' gives and gives

Philanthropist extraordinaire receives civic honor today

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

From humble beginnings in Newport, Otto M. Budig Jr. now puts his personal wealth at $25 million.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        Nine years ago, a successful but obscure businessman was asked to sponsor a play at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

        “How much is it?” asked Otto M. Budig Jr., who had been to the theater only to watch plays.

        “$20,000,” he was told.

        “You have to be kidding,” said Mr. Budig, astounded by such a large request.

        But he did sponsor the play, called Other People's Money. At the time, no one — not even Mr. Budig — knew where that single gift would lead.

        Today, Mr. Budig is one of Cincinnati's biggest arts sponsors. He hasn't been giving as long as some of this town's more established arts supporters; the Corbett Foundation, for example, has donated more than $50 million since 1955.

        But since 1993, the Otto M. Budig Family Foundation, named for Mr. Budig's late father, has donated $14.8 million to high-profile arts projects.

        Mr. Budig serves on more than a dozen boards of the region's biggest arts organizations. The Budig name appears everywhere: There's the Otto M. Budig Lobby at the Aronoff Center for the Arts,the Otto M. Budig Lobby at the Playhouse, the Otto M. Budig Academy of Cincinnati Ballet, and Cincinnati Zoo's Manatee Springs, presented by the Otto M. Budig

        Family Foundation.

        And at age 66, Mr. Budig no longer flinches when asked for money.

        Today he will receive the Peace of the City Award from the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. Last month, Mr. Budig accepted the Metropolitan Club's Metropolitan Award and was honored at the 2000 Butterfly Gala at Krohn Conservatory.

        “Otto has become the darling of the arts,” says Howard Tomb, a board member at the Playhouse and Cincinnati Arts Association.

        “He's been an absolute godsend for many arts organizations,” says Lee Carter, former board chairman of the Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts.

        This much is clear: Otto M. Budig Jr. is a man of some means. So start with this, Mr. Budig: How much are you worth?

        In his unpretentious Queensgate office, behind a plain, Formica wood-grain desk accented with tidy piles of paperwork, he squints through rimless glasses. The question seems painful.

        “Is this for publication?” he says.

        He's a stocky fellow with short, stubby fingers. What's left of his hair has turned gray or white. He's in his usual weekday attire: white dress shirt and tie. And he's gracious to a fault, even when being asked about his personal finances.

        “I, um, let's see. I'm not being evasive, but so much of my worth is tied up in this company,” he says, as he checks some figures.

        Under the umbrella of Budco Group Inc., he and his brother, George, co-own four companies dealing in transportation, heavy equipment leasing, equipment repair and convention and trade show services.

        “Aside from the value of this company,” he says, “in other investments and property and other things, I have personally, maybe, $25 million.”

        Not bad for someone who traces his humble beginnings to Overton Street in Newport.

        Otto Jr. was a teen in 1949 when his father left his warehouse job, borrowed heavily from friends and family and started Budig Trucking Co. It moved freight for conventions. The young Budig boys often worked the graveyard shift, pushing dollies loaded with boxes, sometimes for no pay.

        “It taught me a lot about the value of money and about the value of hard work,” Mr. Budig says.

        He studied accounting at the University of Cincinnati, delved into student government as president of the sophomore, junior and senior classes, and joined the school's theater group, the Mummers Guild.

        “He was a really great actor,” recalls Jim Wachs, a UC classmate who is now a lawyer for Frost & Jacobs. “I thought he could almost have been a professional.”

        At their father's urging, both he and George returned home in 1963 and chose separate paths within the growing family business: George went with the George E. Fern Co., which sets up convention and trade shows; Otto Jr., with the regional trucking company.

        He devoted more than 20 years to trucking, until deregulation caused the company to hemorrhage red ink.

        In 1985, the Budigs sold the trucking business. Also that year, Otto Sr. died.

        Otto Jr. then turned his attention to a new company, Parsec Inc., which specializes in loading and unloading trailers and containers from trains.

        The family business was transformed by Parsec. It handles 60 percent of the U.S. market at about 40 terminals at rail yards in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe. Last year it had income of $111 million.

"Wet behind the ears'
        For years, Mr. Budig had little to do with the arts. Then at lunch one day in 1991, Sam Huttenbauer Jr., a longtime Playhouse board member, asked Mr. Budig to sponsor Other People's Money.

        Mr. Huttenbauer told Howard Tomb, then Playhouse president, that Mr. Budig also was interested in being on the board.

        “No one knew Otto,” Mr. Tomb says. “He was a working stiff. He was naive — wet behind the ears, frankly — about what goes on in the arts. He didn't know anything about the Playhouse and how it operated.”

        After joining the board, Mr. Budig took it upon himself to learn. The Playhouse, he found, was in dire financial straits. It had just hired a new producing artistic director, Ed Stern, and he and Mr. Budig clicked immediately.

        “It was clear Ed was going to make a mark in this city. I just wanted to give him a boost,” Mr. Budig says.

        Soon he agreed to pay for a renovation of the grossly inadequate women's restroom. Grateful patrons named Mr. Budig an “honorary woman.”

        He asked Mr. Stern to compile two wish lists. One for items under $10,000; the other, items $10,000 and up.

        Mr. Budig then paid for virtually everything on the $10,000-and-under list, which exceeded $100,000.

        By 1993, Mr. Budig was ready to take his philanthropy to another level. He and his brother sold a Verona bank, and with his share of the money he formed the Otto M. Budig Family Foundation.

        As a private foundation, it offers tax advantages. More than that, he says, “I thought it was important to honor my father.”

        Mr. Budig named to the foundation board his wife of nearly 42 years, Sally and their three children, Mark and David Budig and Julie Held. But they are board members in name only, and have never had a say in how it's run.

        “That's his baby,” says Mrs. Budig, who has focused her attention on her family and home.

        Says David, 38: “I don't know anything about what he's doing with the arts. That's kind of his niche. He is my father, I respect him tremendously, but this part of his life he's kept somewhat to himself.”

Leading the way
        Otto Budig says whatever recognition the foundation receives is meant to encourage philanthropy in others. He says he is convinced the arts are “a cornerstone to our quality of life here.”

        The foundation's first major gift came in 1993, when community leaders needing money to build downtown's Aronoff Center paid Mr. Budig a visit. He sat at his Formica desk and listened as they asked him to pony up $250,000.

        Cincinnati had been good to him, he told them, so he would pitch in. Not $250,000, but $1.2 million.

        “We picked our jaws up off the desk,” recalls Dudley Taft, then one of the Aronoff fund-raisers and now board chairman of Cincinnati Arts Association, which manages the center. “That doesn't happen often, I promise you.”

        Mr. Budig paid for an initial architectural study for the Playhouse, which led to a plan to renovate the theater, which led to a $7.5 million capital campaign, which ultimately surpassed its goal by $800,000. Mr. Budig gave the lead gift of $1.5 million.

        “Often times I've thought, maybe we should have hogged Otto all to ourselves,” Mr. Stern says. “But clearly the community would not have been served as well.”

        As word of his generosity spread, Mr. Budig was approached by other arts organizations, including the Cincinnati Ballet, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati Art Museum and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. They wanted him on their boards, and he accepted.

        “I have never been on a board to be on a board,” he says. “I have always been on a board to work on a board.”

        Those who know him say it's true.

        “Otto is a man who needs to be busy,” says Melody Sawyer Richardson, who met Mr. Budig almost six years ago through the ballet board. Since then, they've become close friends, sometimes entertaining together and sharing their passion for the arts.

        Both are active in arts organizations and serve on the boards of the Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Opera and Carnegie Arts Center. They're also co-sponsors of the four fiberglass “Pigs for All Seasons” for the city's summer-long Big Pig Gig. Mr. Budig counts Ms. Richardson among a handful of people he turns to for advice about arts issues. Decisions on funding, however, are all his, they say.

        “He does not like idle time on his hands,” says Ms. Richardson, who's also president of the Cincinnati Arts Festival on whose board Mr. Budig sits. “One reason he may have gotten so involved in the arts is his company was running well and he had some time for volunteer work and he enjoyed it. The more you do, the more you enjoy it.”

Somehow finds the time
        In May, business trips took Mr. Budig to Los Angeles, Oakland, Calif., Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Toronto, New Jersey and Columbus. He can juggle that, plus arts board meetings (“I very rarely miss”) because “I have extraordinary people working with me.”

        He has no plans to retire. He doesn't take vacations, but neither does he devote all his time to business and the arts. He attends Bengals football games. And although he no longer pilots planes, he enjoys soaring in engine-less gliders.

        “Put a ball cap on, listen to Bach, and it's ethereal,” he says.

        Arts groups say he's on solid ground with them.

        “The thing most people love about Otto,” says Charles Desmarais, director of the Contemporary Arts Center, “is that he's not just somebody who writes checks and sends them in. The man truly gets engaged. He's the executive director's dream.”

        When they met five years ago, Mr. Budig told Mr. Desmarais he didn't care much for contemporary art because he didn't understand much of it.

        Mr. Desmarais told him to think of it as the research and development department of the art world; although many artists will fall by the wayside, a few will someday be viewed as greats.

        “When he said that, I was absolutely sold!” Mr. Budig says.

        Mr. Budig was board president of the Contemporary Arts Center last year. Soon after the center began a fund drive to build a new facility by 2002, he pledged $1 million.

Projects weigh on his mind
        Right now, Mr. Budig is concerned with the future of Cincinnati Art Museum, where as board president he is tackling a number of long-deferred projects. The Carnegie Arts Center in Covington also has his attention.

        “There's going to be a real metamorphosis” at the Carnegie, he says. “You're going to see a butterfly come out of that worm, I'm telling you. With the help of a lot of people, I'm going to try to make it so. It's going to be an exhibit area, a theater; it's going to be wonderful.”

        Meanwhile, the Budig foundation gets about three grant requests a week.

        “There is no grand plan. Perhaps there should be,” he says. “The grant requests come. I pick up the phone and talk to the person involved, and I either say, "Yes,' "No,' or "I can't do that, but I can do this.'”

        If it's an arts group doing the asking, he rarely says no.

        “I don't think there is any arts organization, except the Playhouse, for which I have a burning need to see succeed,” he says. “(But) I want to assist as best I can, in whatever way I can.”

        His brother, George, likens him to an actor who thrives on the applause and recognition of his audience.

        “And the arts,” he says, “are Otto's audience.”


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