Minding the Farm

Carter Randolph manages the wealth and carries out the wishes of 99 year old philanthropist Louise Nippert and her late husband, Louis. That includes the foundations they established, the Indian Hill farmland they nurtured, and a Westwood estate that has

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Two of the more interesting local stories of the past nine months— interesting because they involve very large sums of money, a low-profile philanthropist of great age, and two civic institutions of unusual emotional resonance—are Louise Nippert’s December 2009 gift of $85 million to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (and other local arts organizations) and her behind-the-scenes presence in the bitter dispute over the Gamble house in Westwood.

Nippert, as almost everyone who cares about such things knows by now, is the widow of Louis Nippert, who was the great-grandson of Procter & Gamble founder James N. Gamble. She is a fourth generation Cincinnatian whose love for her city is reflected in a long life of exceedingly generous acts, many of them anonymous (her clear preference), and most of them targeted to education in environmental issues and to music, her two greatest passions.

But Mrs. Nippert, who turned 99 in August, chooses to no longer speak publicly for herself. For that, she has Carter Randolph, whom she has known since he was a child and with whom she has worked closely since 1987, when he helped her and her husband form the Greenacres Foundation. Randolph is 54 years old, wears a ponytail and blue jeans, owns a DeLorean (but on nice days rides a motorcycle to work), has a 12 handicap on the golf course and a Ph.D. in finance from the University of Cincinnati. He can talk about riparian ecosystems, symphony orchestras, and capital market fluctuations with equal facility. Well known to people seeking money for the arts in Cincinnati, he is not known generally, which suits him fine—except that in the imbroglio over the Gamble house he has been forced to step into the spotlight.

The house, which belonged to James N. Gamble, the inventor of Ivory Soap and son of one of the company’s two founders, has been slated for demolition. When anxious west-siders and preservationists protested the plan, Randolph responded that the house was in “terrible condition” and that the cost of preservation was not “an appropriate expenditure of the foundation’s assets.” All true, but it sounded wooden.

Which was too bad. Because Randolph cares deeply about the property and has thought long and hard about its disposition. He harks back sentimentally to the time when he was 14 and Louis Nippert drove him across town for his first glimpse of the handsome country house that Aunt Olivia Gamble had bequeathed to “Gus,” as Nippert was nicknamed. Nippert was willing to care for it while he was alive, but—according to Randolph—rejected plans for its preservation. Now Randolph makes a cogent case for the demolition of the house in favor of the 21 acres of nature preserve and education center that the Greenacres Foundation (with its board of trustees in strong agreement) wants to create in its place. But we’ll get to that.

I first became interested in Carter Randolph when I read about the Gamble house controversy, and retrospectively, recognized his importance to the $85 million CSO gift. With her announcement last December, Mrs. Nippert was giving the annual investment income from the $85 million gift—rather than the lump sum itself—to the CSO, the Opera, the Ballet, and other musical arts organizations. The principal would continue to be managed by Greenacres. I wondered why. I also wondered whether people who questioned Randolph’s handling of Greenacres—both its land and its dispersal of charitable funds—were justified. As one interested observer said to me: “The question is, is Carter doing what the Nipperts want, or what Carter wants?” Another, turned down for what he felt was an eminently reasonable arts request (“This is just the kind of thing the Nipperts always supported!”), extrapolated that Carter was not popular in the wider community. Whether any of this was true, or just sour grapes, I wanted to know.

While the Nipperts—two generations of them—have gone to great lengths to keep their good works quiet, there are few corners of the community they haven’t touched. As a reporter in the early 1970s, I watched a medical helicopter land on the roof of The Christ Hospital with Gus Nippert standing by, and the Cincinnati Post’s curmudgeonly photographer, Bob Stigers, chiding him: “Get over there, Gus, so I can get a decent shot. Hell, you’ll be paying for it!”

The Christ Hospital, the city’s prominent arts and environmental organizations, the Gamble-Nippert YMCA on the west side, Nippert Stadium, UC, and Xavier University—all bear witness to the family’s stunning civic nurturing. Louis Nippert played a critical role in the future of the abandoned Union Terminal, first by getting the murals saved (by moving them to the airport) and then by helping persuade both the Cincinnati Historical Society and the Museum of Natural History to relocate there and form the Cincinnati Museum Center. In earlier days, I learned, his father and grandfather provided help for virtually all of the agencies that eventually became the United Way. This is more than philanthropy. It is paternalism. Other fortunes have been made since, and other people have been (and are) generous. But the scale of what the Nipperts have done is remarkable.

This history of civic commitment also fired my curiosity about Carter Randolph. I wanted to understand more about an individual who, on the inevitable day when Mrs. Nippert no longer exercises influence over her legacy, may be her designee. Much that is important to the city rides on it.

At his direction, I found Randolph on a hot June day in a nondescript building in Blue Ash behind a sign reading “Planet Products.” There was no receptionist, just a list of extensions, and when I pushed the right one, he emerged. Tall and lanky, with a pleasantly round face and penetrating eyes, he was dressed in blue jeans and a white polo shirt. Planet Products, he explained, is a multiline manufacturing company that he purchased in 1998. It makes things like White Castle assembly lines and specialized hydraulic motors. On the wall was a preliminary sketch of a proposed new product, a “wine chiller aerator”; on his desk, the computer screen was open to eSignal, a financial reporting service. Adjacent shelves contained volumes with titles like High Impact Philanthropy and The Art of Asset Allocation. Nothing relieved the stark functionality of the space.

“Planet Products does not take a lot of my time,” Randolph said. “I like to get things done. I like mechanical stuff. I like figuring things out. I get my hands dirty. [I’m] never not thinking about ‘What can we do next?’”

Randolph has plenty to think about. He runs the Greenacres Foundation, a multifaceted learning center on 600 acres bordering Blome and Eagle Ridge Roads in Indian Hill. With six primary focuses—environmental education, sustainable agriculture, garden education, a water quality project, an equine center, and an arts center—the foundation presents all the challenges of any business: resource deployment, personnel management, customer satisfaction, and public relations. All of which invigorates Randolph. “You have to figure out how to make it work,” he said. “Every challenge is a way to improve.”

At the same time, he is responsible for the investments that comprise the Louis and Louise Nippert Charitable Foundation ($14 million), the Greenacres Foundation ($140 million), the Louise Dieterle Nippert Musical Arts Fund ($85 million), and whatever other money Mrs. Nippert holds. When he is wearing his portfolio manager’s hat, Randolph’s goal is to generate the income—at least five percent—that the various charities dependent on the foundations require. “You’ve got to keep to relatively low risk investments” he explained. “At the same time, you want to make sure you maintain the cash streams that allow you to fund the operations without invading principle.

“I use the balance sheet a lot,” he added. “Conservative managements have less debt. Some people think that’s naïve. On the other hand, it’s very difficult for a company with no debt to go bankrupt.”

Randolph is fiercely loyal to the Nipperts and to their vision of how their fortune should be used. Their passion for children’s education, sustainable animal husbandry and agriculture, and the musical arts is at the forefront of every program that Greenacres undertakes. “I’ve got my instructions,” he said. “The guidelines from the Nipperts were clear. You’ve got to have the highest quality, growing audiences, and whatever you do, make it sustainable.”

This loyalty has deep roots. Raised in Cincinnati, the son of Jane and Guy Randolph Jr., who were lifelong friends of the Nipperts (Jane Randolph still works for Louise Nippert as a kind of social secretary), Carter knew the Nipperts from the time he was 11, and worked on their farm in the summer, at first pulling weeds. “It’s probably a stretch to use the term grandparents,” he said of his relationship with the Nipperts, “but not too much of a stretch.”

Graduated from Indian Hill High School in 1974, he went on to UC to major in finance. Following his graduate work, he taught at Xavier for several years, then went to work locally for Ballou Capital Management. In the late 1980s, he got a call from Mrs. Nippert. Would he talk to the two of them—who had no children of their own—about the future of their property in Indian Hill?

The couple wanted to find a nonprofit that would accept the 350 acres of Greenacres Farm—the Nipperts’ home since 1949—to maintain it as an agricultural enterprise that could be used for teaching children. On their behalf, Randolph approached Cincinnati Nature Center, the Hamilton County Parks, and The Nature Conservancy. “The first two said that if we’d give them the land, they’d keep it, but we’d also have to give them an endowment to maintain it,” he recalled. “The Nature Conservancy said it wasn’t enough land in one place; so they would sell it and use the proceeds to buy more where they were already active. So I told Mrs. Nippert, and she said, ‘I have to give ’em the land and the money and listen to their ideas? Two out of three, maybe…but let’s get it where we put up the land and the money—and the ideas.’” Thus the foundation was conceived.

The Nipperts determined that Greenacres would be their legacy. The foundation was established in 1988, with Randolph helping to create a structure and a budget and to transfer the first 25 acres into the foundation. Then the Nipperts asked him to serve as executive director. “I always had a love of agriculture,” he said. “So when they had this vision and dream for the community, it was an opportunity for me to contribute.”

It was also an opportunity for the Nipperts, who knew that Randolph understood their no-fanfare credo. As he explains it: “Philanthropy is for philanthropy, not credit. When you give, you give to be giving.” As for Greenacres Farm and Foundation, he says the Nipperts were also very clear: “This is never to be a burden to the community. It is a gift. And you don’t give a gift with a mortgage.”

As soon as the foundation was underway, Randolph went before the Indian Hill Planning Commission to seek an exemption for outdoor education. It did not go smoothly. “Maybe I was naïve, but it wasn’t universally viewed as good,” he recalled. “People [worried about] hundreds of cars, traffic, and children running rampant. Eventually, they gave us permission to move ahead, but it showed us we needed to operate in a way that we’re always sensitive to the needs of our neighbors.”

Ten years later, when the foundation purchased an additional 26 acres and Nippert gained 226 acres by acquiring Winding Creek Farm, former estate of margarine heir Julius Fleischmann, the same issues resurfaced. Nippert’s plan was to turn the main house into an arts center for arts education and performances, and to make it available at a fee for weddings and events. Again, Greenacres went to the mat, and again it won. The fallout has been nothing like the protestors’ dire predictions. Even so, “We’ve made some enemies,” allows Greenacres board member Larry Kyte. “Carter has had to bear the brunt of all that, and I don’t know how he’s done it.”

On the same day that Randolph talked with me in his office, he took me on a tour of Greenacres. Starting with the impressive stone stables now housing the Equine Center, we moved to the Arts Center in the refurbished Fleischmann mansion, then to the 19th-century stone church headquarters for Environmental and Agricultural Education, and finally, to the Water Quality Project in a small Loveland building that borders the Little Miami—each refurbished to accommodate its current use. Halfway through my visit, we stopped to admire the 1920s-era greenhouse on the grounds of the former Fleischmann estate. The restoration, still underway, will respect all of its original aesthetics and amenities, yet will be as up-to-date as a modern greenhouse with “roll-out blankets” to retain heat at night and automated air vents for summer cooling. The facility will be handicapped accessible, its plantings will be studied in school programs, and its organic produce will be available in the Greenacres store.

“Quality,” said Randolph, reiterating the Nipperts’ mantra of any project’s worthiness. “You’ve got to have quality, you must be able to grow audience, and it must be sustainable.”

Later, Randolph drilled down onto this concept of “sustainability”—the idea that any project can survive on its own. Whatever the natural resource, it’s to be revitalized, not depleted. “For example, we have Black Angus cattle,” he said. “But we don’t keep them in the same fields year after year. We rotate them with lambs, and then with poultry, because each species brings to and takes away different elements vis-à-vis the grasses. Likewise, we rotate crops, so the soil is never worn out. We harvest what we grow, but at the same time, we build our capacity to deliver again.”

Each year, Greenacres programs serve about 10,000 elementary and high school students, many from the inner city. Randolph’s pride in the programs is evident; he likes especially to tell the story of the Indian Hill High School students who were able to prove to the Metropolitan Sewer District (despite considerable skepticism) that pollutants were continuing to enter Winding Creek long after the MSD had ruled it clear. “We’re not going to educate these kids. They’re not here long enough,” he told me. “But we are going to transform them.”

On the Greenacres Foundation board sit 11 trustees, among them Helen Black, one of the leading environmentalists in Southwest Ohio, and United Dairy Farmers president Brad Lindner, an aspiring horticulturist. Both give Randolph high marks.

“His stewardship of Greenacres is fantastic,” says Black. “Years ago, he headed Indian Hill’s Green Areas Advisory Committee; he created awareness, saw to it that Indian Hill cared for its fields and green spaces.”

Lindner notes that Randolph has a rare combination of fiscal, environmental, and agricultural acumen. “I’m very impressed with Carter’s ability to juggle issues across a broad spectrum,” he says. “The arts center, the farming, the property, and…dealing with Mrs. Nippert. I think he does a really good job of handling her.”

Indeed, Randolph’s role in Mrs. Nippert’s life now extends well beyond farming and financial affairs. She has health issues that need attention, and “he’s in charge of managing the medical people and making sure that what the doctors recommend is what happens,” explains board member Larry Kyte. “He’s on call 24/7. If there’s a 2 a.m. crisis, he gets the call.”

People looking in from the outside may well wonder how Mrs. Nippert is faring. While there are certain public events that she never misses—Opening Day, the May Festival, the Opera—she is a stroke survivor, and she is impaired. But don’t be fooled, say those who are close. “I’m amazed how sharp she is,” says Kyte. “On some things she says ‘no’ quicker than anyone I know.”

Randolph says that while some days are better than others for Mrs. Nippert (“like all of us”), she attends all of the Greenacres board meetings (this year, so far, there have been five). “I put before her all of the requests for money, and each year there are about this many”—he holds his fingers two inches apart—“and she makes a recommendation to the L&L Nippert Charitable Foundation trustees, who usually accept her recommendations.”

But surely Carter can influence her? “I always give Mrs. Nippert multiple options, and she picks what she likes. If she asks my opinion, I give it.” With regard to both the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Gamble house, he has strong opinions, and understanding them may give insight to how Carter Randolph might influence the deployment of the Nippert fortune in years to come.

“When the CSO transitioned to Trey Devey,” he says, referring to the orchestra’s current president, “it was pretty clear they were turning the reins over to the new guy with a pretty severe financial burden. I felt his tenure would be short if there was a big shortfall, and I thought such a disruption could be very detrimental to the CSO. So I started talking about what we might do. The conclusion was that Mrs. Nippert wanted to figure out how to support the orchestra.

“The key to quality is having the best players,” he went on. “If you look at the financial statements, you see that the way to save is either to cut back on the quality of the players or have fewer performances. And if you do either one, you lose patrons and donations, which amounts to a reduction in ticket sales and gifts. Our conclusion was: You can’t cut your way out. You have to find a way to increase revenue.”

The decision, now history, was that Mrs. Nippert would give the symphony orchestra $85 million—a sum that would be managed by the Greenacres Foundation, and that should be enough to provide income of approximately $4 million each year. Except it wasn’t quite that simple. The CSO is to receive about 70 percent of the annual proceeds outright. But to do so, it must play for both the Opera and the Ballet. Those two organizations, together, are to receive another 15 to 18 percent of the income. They, in turn, must agree to perform in Music Hall and to use the CSO for their accompaniment. (The remaining annual income may go to other musical groups within the city or to those three organizations at the discretion of Greenacres.) In this way, Randolph said, the three organizations have a strong incentive to cooperate. Moreover, the gift should ensure that CSO musicians will continue to have year-round employment—another key to attracting and retaining quality musicians.

Finally, the $85 million itself will remain under Greenacres Foundation’s (i.e. Carter Randolph’s) oversight. Why not give it to the orchestra to manage? “’Cause they’ll blow it,” Randolph says. When Louis Nippert died, he adds, he left a sum of money to the orchestra, and several years later it was greatly diminished. “Our purpose is to protect the principal from invasive, short-term decisions that are destructive.”

Independent of the $85 million gift, two other things that Randolph regards as essential to the orchestra’s long-term viability are a refurbished Music Hall and a young conductor with charisma. With Music Hall, he is matter-of-fact: “You have to do what you have to do to have it be what it can be and should be. I would not like to see some architect come in and say it can be done for $50 million when it will require $100 million. Consistent with the values of Mrs. Nippert, you do it right—once.”

Regarding conductors, he makes one point: “You need a rock star. Someone everyone wants to go to. Gustavo Dudamel, the 29-year-old Venezuelan who conducts the LA Philharmonic, went to Nashville and filled the house with 30-year-olds. If you can capture that rock star aura, a lot of the current challenges will go away.”

When it was reported that CSO conductor Paavo Järvi had been apprehended for DUI, Randolph jokingly suggested to Trey Devey that they create a billboard depicting the conductor not with a baton, but with handcuffs, under the legend: “Not your father’s symphony anymore.” Anything to entice a younger crowd.

When Greenacres acquired Winding Creek Farm and the neighbors feared the worst, Randolph was careful to see that the new arts and music venue would not grate on them—making certain, for instance, that the decibel count of music at weddings would be held to a low level, among other things. Now, in the controversy over the Gamble house, the neighbors—and the city’s preservationists—have once again gone to general quarters. While the house’s fate remains in litigation, it is—in Randolph’s view—“on a course to be demolished.” Is that neighborly?

Although the fight to save the Gamble house is well chronicled, the reasons why Randolph and the Greenacres board want it gone are less so. They boil down to these: The house will be more expensive to refurbish than anyone wants to recognize, more expensive to maintain than anyone understands, and perhaps most important, it can serve no useful purpose. It is not architecturally distinguished. It does not lend itself to conferences and social events. It can only be a drain on someone’s resources.

Specifically, standard estimates for repairs have been in the $400,000 to $500,000 range. But this is an historic home. Randolph says that to bring it up to historical and Greenacres standards, like the foundation’s buildings in Indian Hill, would cost closer to $2 million. He believes that to staff and maintain it would require another set-aside of $6 million to $8 million (a number predicated in part on what the National Trust for Historic Preservation told him in 1983, but adjusted for inflation). And then, without a plan for programming (he sees no use for it other than as a museum) he asks, “Are you going to spend all that so that a few people a year can trickle through? To me, it’s a huge distraction from getting good things to happen. If there’s been a frustration, that’s it.”

Paul Muller, interim executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, sees it all a little differently. “We have made a proposal to purchase the building,” he says. While he would not say for how much, he implied that the purchase price would probably not be a stumbling block. “Our area of biggest difference,” he said, “is the endowment. Six to eight million dollars”—the amount Randolph says would have to be set aside—“would provide income of about $400,000 a year, or more than $30,000 a month. It will not take that much to maintain the house and honor the memory of James N. Gamble.”

Muller went on to cite what he believes to be two powerful reasons to save the house. First, “it is at the heart of the architectural movement that was working out how to relate the American country house to nature. That’s what the Italianate country house is all about. Greenacres preaches stewardship, conservation, and the relationship between people and nature. That house is a gem of a teaching house.”

The second reason, he said, is the building’s connection to James N. Gamble, whom he regards as “one of the most phenomenal people who ever lived in Cincinnati, possibly America. Considering his role as an inventor and a philanthropist, the values associated with that house have national relevance.”

If all this is so, I asked Muller, then why wasn’t the house’s significance recognized years ago? Oftentimes, he answered, it simply takes time for the value of any given edifice, or its owner’s contributions, to be understood and venerated. “One of the things Greenacres has missed,” he concluded, “is that they’ve misinterpreted the people of Westwood. These people aren’t attacking. They’re anguishing over the possible loss. I think it will be Cincinnati’s Penn Station if this thing is torn down.”

Randolph has said that if someone else wants to underwrite the resurrection of the house, perhaps the board would listen. But at the time we talked, he said no one with a realistic offer had emerged. So, short of a legal block—in which case all bets are off—the board will proceed to refurbish three smaller buildings on the 21 acres and create a learning center on the Greenacres model. “The people involved in the protests think they’re doing the right thing,” he said, “but my guidelines from the Nipperts are clear. You’ve got to have quality, audience, and sustainability.” As Randolph and the Foundation see it, the Gamble house alone has none of the three.

“The plans we have would be so much more beneficial to Westwood,” says Larry Kyte. “Yet people say, ‘You’ve got the money, we need the money, give it to us.’ I don’t know if he has told you, but Carter has had death threats over this.”

Randolph didn’t tell me that, but he isn’t given to hysteria, nor to inflating his own importance to the ventures by which he’s consumed. He is, by temperament, low key, willing to let his work speak for him. “Almost everything I do is implementing the dream of someone else,” he said. “If I’m invisible, I’m doing the right thing. If you see Mrs. Nippert, that’s who you should see. I’ve been given the privilege of guiding.”

And so he has. Backed by the enthusiasm of his board and his long history with the family, Randolph looks to be in the driver’s seat for the foreseeable future. Indeed, at one point in our conversation, he said the thing that concerns him most is what will happen when he is no longer available to help.

Is that ego? Or deeply felt stewardship? The answer probably depends on where you sit. I asked Randolph who doesn’t like him, and he quickly answered people who have been turned down for money, and people in Westwood. Others may simply resent him. Running a foundation is many people’s idea of a pretty cushy job, and Randolph’s family ties could exacerbate such an impression. (“A Svengali to Mrs. Nippert,” one person snarled to me, without offering anything solid to back that up.)

Randolph struck me as a deeply private person. Divorced, father to a boy and girl, he lives in Symmes Township not far from Greenacres. But he is not listed in the phone book, and he didn’t want to talk about his house or his family—and, in fact, there was no reason to. Where this preference for privacy may enter into his public role is with regard to issues like Westwood: A person more comfortable with public outreach may—may—have been able to better defuse or deter the furor that has arisen.

The bottom line on Carter Randolph may be this: he’s got a good mind and a capacity to grow. Running the Greenacres Foundation and all the money and Mrs. Nippert isn’t cushy. It’s challenging. But it’s a challenge he thrives on, and has met very well in so many ways that it’s no wonder the Nipperts felt early on they would be fortunate to have him aboard. He learned about good neighboring in Indian Hill. Undoubtedly, he is learning from this latest chapter as well.

Originally published in the September 2010 issue.

Photographs by Jonathan Willis

 

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