“I wanted to be rich,’ he told the Boston Globe very seriously in 1988, “so I could give my money away.”
That would all happen but not nearly as quickly has he might have hoped. He had graduated from BU in 1942, and by June 1944, he was a private first class in Army Intelligence aboard one of ships in the immense armada approaching the Normandy coast. But he was not to set foot in France. He fell and broke a leg, and within a year he was entering Harvard’s advance management MBA program, the first Harvard student on the GI Bill. Upon graduation in 1947 he joined Standard Oil of California and spent two unhappy years on the West Coast before he eagerly sought and won a position with a new SOCal division back east. In a peculiar way, the California Refining Company in Perth Amboy, New Jersey was to be the launch pad for Warren’s meteoric business career. He had been sent east as the company’s credit manager, a position that had been handled so ineptly up to that point that one large customer in Providence had amassed debt he appeared to have no conceivable way of paying off. In a display of chutzpah that was to characterize his business career Warren first confirmed their dismal assessment of the situation and then convinced SoCal management that, if they would turn the entire operation over to him, he could get them their money.
“They, in effect, gave him the business,” notes Herbert Kaplan, Warren’s nephew and the president of Warren Equities and the Warren Alpert Foundation. And, in effect, they had given the oil business in the East and innovative and aggressive new competitor who would revolutionize the industry. It was the early 1950’s and most distributorships operated, as they always had, in one city. Seeing no reason for that restriction, Warren expanded into additional cities forming companies in Connecticut and New Jersey as well as Rhode Island. The strategy won him steep quantity discounts from his suppliers and powerful advantages over his competitors. What was go become Warren Equities, Inc, one of the nation’s top 500 privately-owned companies, grew to own oil, wholesale food and tobacco distributorships, real estate and XtraMart convenience stores at more than 250 East Coast gasoline stations. He expanded into other areas as the decades moved on, but, if a venture did not work, he dropped it quickly and moved on. “Losing money does not turn me on,” he said. But the time of his death Warren Equities had annual sales of $2 billion.
As remarkable as the growth was the reason behind it. It was entirely a “one-man show.” “He was the toughest man I ever met,” says Kaplan. “He never married, and he was a true entrepreneur, always working alone and priding himself on having no partners, ‘living or dead.’ He always said you only get to make two great decisions in life, but he never said what his were.” He had an office staff of two or three people, but he answered his own phone. He was always reachable.
“I don’t have a yacht. I don’t have a plane, I don’t have a chauffeur,” he said. But what he did have, notes Kaplan, was a tremendous zest for life. “He really was a character. He would go to black-tie dinners, and when everybody else wore a black tie, he wore a bright red tie and red handkerchief, as he sat up on the dais. When I asked him why, he said: ‘When they look up, they’re not going to see the chairman of this event. They’re going to remember me.’ He really wanted to be noticed. And he was.”
What he was to be noticed and remembered for, of course, where his extraordinary philanthropies in the medical and health fields. His dream was to help researchers make life better for others, even for a short period of time. “We’re all going to die,” he said, “Since it happens to everybody, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could have one better day? Imagine. One Good day.”
In 1985 Warren was a founding donor of Harvard Medical School’s “New Pathway” program with a $500,000 contribution. He also donated $20 million to Harvard in 1993 to name the new research center at the Medical School. In 1998, he donated $1 million to Harvard’s Tosteson Medical Education Center, and in 1999, he donated $15 million to Mount Sinai Hospital for what is now the Warren Alpert Pavilion, dedicated to pediatrics and radiology Since 1987, in partnership with Harvard Medical School, the Warren Alpert Foundation has awarded the $150,000 Warren Alpert Foundation Prize to many of the world’s foremost physician-scientists and researchers. Each fall Harvard Medical School hosts a scientific symposium in honor of the recipients of the prize.
In January 2007, Warren made his final and largest donation cited above–the $100 million dollar gift to the medical school at Brown University which renamed the school in his honor. “Warren was a true friend to biomedical researchers all over the world,” Harvard Medical School Dean Joseph B. Martin said on his passing. “The scientific community has lost a friend and ally, but fortunately Warren’s vision will continue through the foundation and through the continuing benefit of the gifts he made to many healthcare institutions.” What made Warren Alpert most proud, Kaplan remembers, was how far he had come for Chelsea, the poorest city in MA. “He wanted go back and buy his childhood home to convert into a museum. But there is to be no museum. The building had been torn down. It was a parking lot.”