Paul Allen is not the first billionaire to leave behind a meaningful legacy of philanthropy and business endeavors. But it is hard to imagine another business leader with such a sprawling array of enterprises, including major sports franchises, broad swaths of real estate, research facilities, cultural institutions, environmental conservation projects, and more.
What all of those ventures had in common was Allen’s vision, passion, and financial support. Allen’s passing Monday immediately raised questions about what will happen to his myriad projects now.
The organizations tasked with managing Allen’s various endeavors have declined to give many specifics about what will happen next, but they did commit to carrying out Allen’s vision. At least in the short term, it appears there won’t be any major changes at many of Allen’s institutions.
Allen developed an unprecedented menagerie of institutions, businesses, land holdings and more over the years that now fall to his successors. Allen is not survived by a spouse or children but by his sister, Jody Allen. She hasn’t commented publicly on her brother’s estate.
Estate planning experts and attorneys told GeekWire they don’t expect one individual to step up to fill Paul Allen’s shoes in his various endeavors. It will likely take a team effort.
“He was an unusual man, and for things to continue in a similar vein under someone else’s leadership, that would be amazing, to have enough foresight and thought to set that up,” said Glen White, principal of The Rainier Group Inc, an affiliate of Coldstream Holdings that specializes in business succession planning. “My guess is things will be more carved up. I don’t know how much interest any one person or even any one family would have in maintaining the diaspora of interests that Paul Allen obviously had; it is a bit unprecedented. My guess is we won’t have someone like him, maybe ever again.”
Allen was diagnosed with cancer in 1982 while still in his 20s. The disease went into remission and returned twice over the years, before Allen ultimately passed away Monday from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Because the threat of illness loomed for most of his adult life, Allen and his team likely crafted a detailed succession plan for his holdings starting years, if not decades, in advance.
“I think his estate planning is likely tremendously complex,” said Stacey Romberg, a Seattle attorney whose practice includes estate planning. “I assume that it had been revisited and revisited and revisited constantly over the years to get it right. I would not be surprised if within the last month, because he was very public in acknowledging that his illness was back, he made another trip back to the law firm.”
Paul Allen signed The Giving Pledge, meaning that he will donate the majority of his fortune to charity. Romberg speculated that Allen also likely set aside reserves to fund institutions like MoPOP and Living Computers: Museum + Labs should they run into financial troubles.
White doesn’t see a lot of change ahead for everything Paul Allen built. Allen’s holding company, Vulcan, is responsible for running many of his ventures. Leaders there have pledged to carry out his vision.
“I would separate the idea of ownership and running things,” White said. “There’s a full C-suite of Vulcan people, and I’m sure that’s true with the charities as well. So the day-to-day operations are probably not going to be affected that much by his passing.”
Vulcan’s CEO, Bill Hilf, said Monday “there are no changes imminent for Vulcan, the teams, the research institutes or museums,” speaking on behalf of Paul Allen’s investment firm as well as the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers.
“Paul had a tremendously huge vision on how to improve the world,” Hilf said at a press conference at Vulcan’s headquarters Monday. “A big part of our forward plans are to help realize that vision and to continue what he wanted to get done. That’s how we are rallying together today, this week, and the next weeks, to carry that banner into the future for him.”
But some of Allen’s most prized possessions — his sports franchises — may be looking at an uncertain future. Sports Business radio reports said that both the Trail Blazers and Seahawks will likely be sold by the Allen estate, citing anonymous sources.
Michael Lewellen, vice president of communications for the Trail Blazers, noted that ownership of both sports franchises remains under the Vulcan umbrella, as they always have. “It’s very, very early in aftermath, so nothing specific has been shared,” he said.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, speaking at the league’s 2018 fall meeting on Wednesday, said there hasn’t been any immediate discussion about the future of the Seahawks ownership.
“We think it is inappropriate at this point in time to be having those kinds of discussions,” he said. “The Seahawks have made plans. Paul Allen had made plans. At the appropriate time, those plans will be discussed.”
Despite stepping away from Microsoft, which he co-founded with Bill Gates long ago in 1975, Allen reportedly retained approximately 100 million shares in the company. White thinks a portion of that could be sold to pay state and federal estate taxes and used to fulfill his charitable promises.
Allen was incredibly influential in the transformation of Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood from an underutilized industrial stretch into a world-class tech hub. In the early 1990s, Allen invested $20 million in a project called the Commons that planned to turn South Lake Union into a massive park. Voters rejected the plan in 1995, which left the proposed land in Allen’s control. He bought up more property in the area, and his organization built Amazon’s Seattle headquarters and sold the campus to the tech giant in 2012 for $1.16 billion.
Vulcan Real Estate has now developed 10.5 million square feet that includes nearly 3,400 residential units. Its buildings in South Lake Union are or will be home to some of the biggest tech companies on the planet, including Amazon, Google, and Facebook.
Now Vulcan is expanding its focus to the other side of Lake Washington, recently scooping up a couple of high profile pieces of land in downtown Bellevue, Wash. Vulcan is looking at developing close to 2 million square feet in Bellevue, and word on the street is that Amazon could be the tenant for at least one of the projects.
Lori Mason Curran, Vulcan’s investment strategy director for real estate, reiterated Hilf’s statement that “there are no changes imminent” for the organization, which controls Allen’s real estate holdings.
“Paul thoughtfully addressed how the many institutions he founded and supported could continue after he was no longer able to lead them,” Mason Curran told GeekWire in an email. “Now, is the time to focus on Paul’s life and allow his family and friends space to grieve. We will continue to work on furthering Paul’s mission and the projects he entrusted to us.”
In recent years, Allen launched two cutting-edge research institutions to accelerate Seattle as a hub for scientific discovery, the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2). Oren Etzioni, CEO of AI2 declined to comment on the future of the institute, but he did say: “I continue to be 100 percent committed to leading AI2 with the goal of continuing to build and strengthen Paul’s vision, mission, and legacy — now more than ever.”
Jean Floyd, the CEO of Allen’s Stratolaunch space venture also confined his comments to a few words. He wrote, “We deeply respect and admire Mr. Allen’s vision. His legacy will be honored,” in a tweet.
In addition to his commercial operations, Allen leaves behind a number of philanthropic efforts. In 2014, he pledged $100 million toward tackling the Ebola crisis in West Africa. He spent more than $7 million to launch a first-of-its-kind census of African savanna elephants to track the rapid decline of those populations due to poaching.
Closer to home, Vulcan funded a new tiny house village in Seattle to house homeless families, and enlisted employees to build the structures. Paul G. Allen Philanthropies donated $30 million to build a new homeless resource center to house up to 94 families in Seattle’s Mt. Baker neighborhood.
“Paul passing has no impact on the tiny house or Mount Baker Family Housing and Resource Center project,” said Pearl Leung, Vulcan’s external affairs director, in an email. “The Mount Baker project is still set to open and serve families in early 2020. And the tiny house village is currently in operation on 18th & Yesler.”
Seattle is grappling with a growing homelessness crisis, driven in part by skyrocketing housing costs associated with the tech boom. There’s a direct line between Allen’s work — as Microsoft co-founder and the real estate developer who brought Amazon to the heart of Seattle — and the city’s tech boom.
“The phrase Paul would use frequently, is he has to help in his own backyard,” said Hilf. “He felt a big responsibility about the homelessness situation here in his hometown where he grew up. The Mt. Baker project we’re doing, focusing on homeless families in particular, was a big part of what he wanted to have as a signature project for the work he could leave in Seattle and have a real impact on not just Seattle homelessness but greater King County.”
Here is a timeline of Allen’s life and a rundown of his various ventures, courtesy of Vulcan:
- 1953: Paul Allen is born January 21, 1953 in Seattle, Wash.
- 1968: While at Lakeside School, Paul meets Bill Gates. A friendship that would later produce one of the world’s most innovative companies, Microsoft.
- 1969: Attends first rock concert, where he sees Jimi Hendrix at Seattle Center Coliseum
- 1975: Founds Microsoft with Bill Gates
- 1982: In September, Paul is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Nearly eight months later, doctors said he had beaten the disease.
- 1983: Officially resigns from Microsoft in March
- 1986: Founds Vulcan Inc. in Seattle as an investment and project management firm with his sister, Jody Allen
- 1988: Establishes The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation
- 1988: Purchases the Portland Trail Blazers
- 1990: The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation makes its first grant
- 1990: Becomes a billionaire at age 37
- 1995: Makes his single biggest investment to date by purchasing a 18.5 percent stake in Dreamworks
- 1996: Purchases the St. Paul’s Hospital in London, which would reopen later after renovations as The Hospital Club
- 1997: Creates Vulcan Productions, an independent film production company
- 1997: Purchases the Seattle Seahawks, preventing the NFL team from relocating to California
- 1998: Purchases Seattle Cinerama, saving it from demolition
- 2000: Founded with his sister, Jody Allen, Experience Music Project (now the Museum of Pop Culture), dedicated to the ideas and risk-taking that fuel contemporary popular culture.
- 2002: Donates $14 million to the University of Washington to construct the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering
- 2003: Launches the Allen Institute for Brain Science (AIBS) with $100 million in seed money
- 2004: SpaceShipOne becomes the first privately-based effort to successfully put a civilian in suborbital space, winning the Ansari X Prize
- 2004: Opens the Flying Heritage Collection, a private collection of warbirds, in Arlington, Washington
- 2007: Amazon announces lease of 11-building, 1.6 million-square-foot office campus in South Lake Union, developed by Vulcan and Schnitzer West
- 2008: Lifetime philanthropic giving reaches $1 billion in total
- 2009: Becomes a minority owner in Seattle Sounders, the MLS team
- 2011: Releases memoir “Idea Man”
- 2011: Announces the launch of Stratolaunch Systems. The venture’s goal is to create an air launch to orbit system
- 2012: Opens the Living Computer Museum, an interactive collection of vintage mainframes and machines, to the public in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood
- 2013: Announces expansion of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, aiming to model it after the Brain Science Institute
- 2014: Seattle Seahawks win the Super Bowl over the Denver Broncos
- 2014: Pledges $100 million to support efforts to stop Ebola outbreak in West Africa
- 2014: Founds the Allen Institute for Cell Science
- 2015: Founded the Seattle Art Fair, one-of-a-kind destination for the best in modern and contemporary art and a showcase for the vibrant arts community of the Pacific Northwest.
- 2017: Donates $40 million to the University of Washington’s computer-science efforts. The university in turn names the school after him.
- 2017: Founded Upstream Music Fest + Summit, a three-day celebration of music in the Pacific Northwest.
- 2017: Locates the wreck of the USS Indianapolis
- 2018: Dies on Oct. 15 in Seattle of complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma