An active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (which owns BYU), the ASU alumnus expanded a California clothing store chain, which he sold in 1995, before making Fulton Homes one of the largest homebuilders in the booming Phoenix market. The 74-year-old philanthropist, who has no plans to retire soon, told BusinessWeek reporter Bremen Leak why he's so eager to give away his fortune. Here are edited excerpts.
It's been said that if you had stopped writing big checks, you'd be a billionaire by now, so why the constant smile?
You know something, I've been giving away half of my profit since '91 to education, and my company averages over 45% gain in equity every year. It's just crazy. I give it away, but it comes right back to me. I think it's because it motivates me to get out and work harder.
Something else -- you can't take it with you. Before my mother passed away, I said: "Mom, I've figured out how to take it with me." She said: "How?" I said: "Traveler's checks," and she hit me. I love giving it away. Every time I go out and make a new land transaction, I look at the profit I've made, and I say: "That would get me so many scholarships or build me another building!" I convert everything to buildings or scholarships.
Aside from donating money to ASU and BYU, what else have you been up to lately?
I'm glad you ask. In the past couple years I've been involved with the [Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii] because it helps pay scholarships for boys and girls to go to college. [The PCC is affiliated with BYU Hawaii through an international work-study program.] We have 700 boys and girls that could not go to college if we didn't give them a job at the PCC. We have 11 villages there, and they literally dress up and perform their native customs for all the tourists. Last year we celebrated our 30 millionth tourist since it opened. We have quite a program there.
How do your wealthy neighbors respond to your giving?
All my friends, they have it. They just... I asked them the other day: "Have you ever seen a Brinks truck at a funeral procession? I haven't." You can't take it with you. I'm on them all the time about that.
I understand you raise at least $25 million a year from other donors in addition to your own giving. What's your strategy?
Invite wealthy neighbors and friends to give, too. I solicit funds all the time. You wouldn't want to have a lot of money, because you'd have to say no to me a lot of times. You know what I do to them? I'll go up to them and they'll say: "Ira, we can't afford it," and I'll say: "Well, I'll loan you the money till you can pay me back." The other day I went up to one of them, and he said: "Ira, I have no money." And I said: "I know you don't, Jerry. Just give me stock. You have a choice: stock or a check." I'm very much a strong-arm guy.
Treat your business partners right. Win them to your cause. I'm a tough businessman, but I also believe you've got to be fair. If you beat somebody up and take advantage of them, they're not on your team. You've got to treat them right. We try to work with suppliers, and I tell them what I'm giving. We have a lot of suppliers that will donate their materials with no markup. You've got to talk to the CEO and say: "This is what I'm doing." I approach them with my hat in my hand and I say: "Can you help me? Will you help me?" Anytime I go out and ask them for $10,000 for a cause, they write me a check.
Don't tie up your giving resources. Borrow from banks if you must. It takes about $200 million just to operate my construction company to build homes, but I don't borrow that money. I need to buy land six or seven years out, but I don't need to tie up my money in land that I can't do anything with all these years. So I go to [the banks]. A couple of years ago I asked for a couple-million-dollar line of credit. And they said: "Is that all?" I borrow from a conglomerate of banks. And every one of my banks is proud that they loan me money now, because they know what I do with it.
How do you know what these universities do with it?
They have to report back to me. I meet with the deans personally. I meet with the faculty. I'm not just going to give them a free lunch, because I don't believe in free lunches. I believe if you teach somebody how to work, they'll feed themselves forever, and that's what I want to do.
When did you first learn the importance of generosity?
My mother was very generous. We had a little hamburger stand in Tempe [Ariz.], and she raised seven of us out of it. We just didn't have any money, but we were able to eat, have clean clothes, and get an education. But my mother never, never turned anybody away.
I remember when I was a little boy, I used to scold Mama. I'd say: "Mama, you give away our food, and we work so hard for it." And she'd say: "But they're hungry." Because of my mother, I became a very charitable person. I can hardly say no to anybody -- if they're in need. I can say no to people who want to twist my arm for an investment. But to help people that are down and out -- you're blessed for that, and I believe that.
Recently, you and Mary Lou celebrated your 51st wedding anniversary -- something not all successful businesspeople achieve. Have your mutual giving efforts brought you two closer together?
Oh, yes. We're 100% in everything. We're just one.
What do you hope to accomplish with your giving?
I'm educating a lot of great men and women who will go out and be our future CEOs and CFOs, and within the church, our bishops, our general authorities, our mission presidents. Like I told the prophet [Gordon B. Hinckley] the other day: "I'm going to let you spiritually save their soul, and I'm going to educate the soul." And he said: "Ira, you've got a deal."
My goal is to get other people to have the same feeling I have about giving, to make things better in this world. We've been blessed so much. Everybody has. They just forget where it comes from.