From humble beginnings running his father's dairy store in Norwood, Carl Henry Lindner Jr. grew into a billionaire, a friend of U.S. presidents and Greater Cincinnati's most successful entrepreneur.
For nearly a century until he died late Monday at age 92 , the former Reds owner never shed the fierce competitiveness and loyalty that made him a hometown icon.
His influence ran to every corner of Greater Cincinnati. The high-school dropout bought and sold Kings Island, the Reds, Provident Bank and the Enquirer. His name is on buildings from the University of Cincinnati's business school to the tennis center at Lunken Playfield.
But it was the banking and insurance business that made him a billionaire. At his death, his American Financial Group Inc. controlled assets of nearly $32 billion and he was routinely listed as one of the richest men in America.
Ever the optimist, Lindner often carried an inch-thick stack of cards with motivational sayings - one was "Only in America! Gee, am I lucky!" - that he handed out to anyone he would meet.
He was a teetotaler, physically unimposing yet with a prominent shock of white hair and a penchant for wearing flashy neckties.
Even to his closest friends and colleagues, he was soft-spoken and rarely confrontational. Yet some business partners complained about unfair treatment and he flashed a harsh temper when confronting reporters who wrote what he perceived as unfriendly stories or criticism of his business dealings.
A devout Baptist and a longtime member of Kenwood Baptist Church, Lindner used his wealth and influence behind the scenes to become Greater Cincinnati's largest benefactor and economic development force. At the height of his personal giving he contributed millions of dollars a year to charitable causes, and brought thousands of high-paying jobs to downtown Cincinnati.
His companies brought thousands of employees to the region, and the annual Christmas party that he threw at Music Hall attracted some of the nation's biggest acts, including Bill Cosby and Frank Sinatra.
At the same time, Lindner thought of himself as an outsider, building his business career outside of Cincinnati's old-money elite. He was never a member of many of the most exclusive business and country clubs and his bar-the-doors business style, starting with a hostile takeover of Provident Bank in the mid-1960s, was out of place in always polite Cincinnati.
Perhaps the most public role of his career was his ownership of the Cincinnati Reds from 1999 to 2005. Lindner owned a minority stake both before and after that period but was the Reds' CEO for six seasons, and each of those years the team lost more games than it won.
He approved the trade for Ken Griffey Jr. in 2000, even sending his private jet to bring Griffey to Cincinnati and then personally driving the hometown star back to Cinergy Field from Lunken Airport in his Rolls-Royce.
But as the Reds' losses mounted, Lindner never spoke publicly to fans and privately bristled at talk-radio criticism.
That period ended in late 2005 when Lindner sold a controlling stake in the Reds to a group headed by Bob Castellini.
Shy and scornful of reporters, Lindner nevertheless became a focus of media attention because of his substantial wealth and his far-flung business dealings.
The controversies included millions of dollars in political contributions as his Chiquita Brands International Inc. was waging a trade war with European countries, a bevy of lawsuits and federal charges over business deals that benefited Lindner and his company more than other shareholders, and a high-profile battle with the Enquirer in 1998 over a series of critical stories on Chiquita.
Lindner built a national reputation in the 1980s as a high-risk trader, becoming a business partner of symbols of the decade's excess such as junk-bond king Michael Milken and Cincinnati's own Charles Keating.
He was the classic "value investor," buying properties few other investors wanted and waiting years, or even decades, to reap the benefits.
That gave him a portfolio including the old Penn Central railroad, Circle K convenience stores and New York City landmark Grand Central Station.
But Lindner spent the two decades before his death shedding assets that didn't deal with insurance and transferring others to his three sons. That left American Financial as mostly an insurance and financial services company.
He lost his stake in Chiquita in 2002 when that company emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In 2004, Lindner, his family and American Financial reaped nearly $1 billion in stock when they sold Cincinnati's Provident Financial Group Inc. to Cleveland-based National City Corp.
The moves consolidated the business around safer insurance businesses. Lindner also transferred tens of millions of dollars to his three sons and their families, solidifying for generations a wealth that he never enjoyed growing up.
Born April 22, 1919, in Dayton, Ohio, Carl Henry Lindner Jr. was the firstborn of a modest dairyman and his wife, Clara.
Lindner quit high school to help in his father's Norwood dairy store. Along with his father, he and his brothers Robert and Richard, and sister Dorothy, built it into United Dairy Farmers, a chain of dairy and convenience stores.
When the family founded what now is UDF on Montgomery Road in Norwood in 1940, the first day's sales amounted to $8.28.
Lindner often talked about the modest surroundings of his childhood, noting more than once that he picked up dates in an ice-cream truck.
Robert Lindner's family eventually took control of UDF, and Richard Lindner became sole owner of the Thriftway supermarket chain before selling it to Winn-Dixie Stores.
Lindner married the former Ruth Wiggeringloh of Norwood in 1942. They divorced seven years later with no children. He then married the former Edyth Bailey in 1951, and they have three sons who all went into the family business: Carl III, Craig and Keith.
Lindner cautiously entered the savings-and-loan and insurance business, founding his flagship company American Financial Corp. in 1959. In the early 1970s the company gained control of Great American Insurance, which would become its chief operating business.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the company bought and sold companies in a variety of industries. Lindner took the company private in 1981 and released little financial information to the public, but in 1995 the company sold stock to public shareholders under the new umbrella of American Financial Group Inc.
In 2003, Keith Lindner left American Financial to concentrate on the family's charitable pursuits. In 2004 Carl and Craig Lindner were named co-CEOs of the company while Carl Lindner Jr. remained chairman.
Lindner was a conservative icon, lobbying against Robert Mapplethorpe's 1990 exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center here and funding the Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy.
But he was pragmatic as well, contributing more than $1 million to Democratic President Bill Clinton during Chiquita Brands' battle over European banana quotas. He was well known as one of the biggest givers in the country to both political parties.
By Cliff Peale | firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in The Cincinnati Enquirer from Oct. 18 to Oct. 19, 2011
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