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The Man Behind The Money Part II

February 18, 2014, 10:15 PM by Angela Kennecke

The Man Behind The Money Part II

Billionaire Denny Sanford is determined to die broke. He's signed Bill Gates "Giving Pledge," along with Warren Buffet. 
At 45-years-old Sanford was already a multi-millionaire. It was only after he acquired a South Dakota bank and started the subprime credit card company Premier Bankcard that he made it into the elite billionaire category.

To date, Sanford has given away more than a billion dollars. But he's not stopping there. This 78-year-old isn't about to slow down with his business or charitable work.

Denny Sanford lives large and gives large. He's given $800 million to the Sanford Health System, which has enabled it to grow and search for cures for diabetes, breast cancer and research other diseases. And while Sanford's name is branded across South Dakota, it's also becoming well-known in San Diego. He's donated more than $100 million for medical research here.

Angela: You've said you look at life as an investor and when you are giving away money, you want to see the greatest return on your investment?
Denny: I believe the research we are doing at Sanford Health, together with the Sanford Consortium down here and Sanford Burnham are truly going to create some cures for major diseases. We're working very diligently on ALS.

Sanford is a hands-on donor. He's actively involved in organizations he gives money to. On this day he attended a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Event. He believes there will be a cure for diabetes in the years to come. 

"It think it will happen. I have to live a little longer, obviously," Sanford said.

Sanford contributed the $55 million to build the Sanford Consortium where 300 people work on stem cell research in LaJolla. 

"So you're looking at a stem cell. We've taken the top stem cell scientists and put them in the very same building and they all work together on the same diseases. I don't know what happens here. I just know it happens and they're excited about it," Sanford said.

And while he interacts with the scientists, it's the personal stories of parents whose children are affected by diseases like diabetes that drive him to give. 

"This disease has no rhyme or reason, especially I think in smaller children," A mother of two diabetic children said to Sanford.

"Is there a family history?" Sanford asked. "No, nothing," the mother replied. 

His causes don't end in the medical field; he's branched out to try to solve social ills and his latest projects may surprise you. 

"My legacy; my single biggest legacy will be, ultimately reducing the divorce rate in this country," Sanford said.

This twice-divorced father of two was inspired after reading Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, by John Gray.  He's working with Arizona State on the Harmony Program and paying visits to major universities in hopes that classrooms will adopt it as part of their curriculum.

"Trying to teach very young children how to appreciate, acknowledge and be friends with the opposite gender. And Arizona State came along with a little person named Z and here is Z and Z will be visiting every classroom and the teacher says, 'Ok kids, we have a new friend in our class today and that's Z. On the planet Z there are no boys and girls, so Z wants to know what boys and girls are all about,'" Sanford said.

Sanford's goal is to cut the divorce rate in half in 50 years. He started another program called "Inspire," also being developed by ASU for teachers.

Angela: Do you remember what teacher inspired you the most?
Denny: Oh yeah, Mrs. Loring, third grade.  She just said you can accomplish a lot.
Angela: She was right.
Denny: Oh I think so. It was a good bet.

Not all of Sanford's bets pay off though. He points to his time as a venture capitalist in the 80's. 

"We did 28 different investments, small companies and the like and more than half of them failed. That was not a lot of fun, but a great education for me," Sanford said.

And not everything Sanford does in the business world is without controversy. Sanford's South Dakota companies have business ties with Sanford Health and the benefits from those relationships have faced scrutiny. 

"Those are totally legitimate. There's no favoritism. I'm not trying to duck anything. I'm an open book," Sanford said.

Sanford is still actively working on new business ventures. 

Denny: I'll never retire. 
Angela: You'll never retire?
Denny: No, what for? As long as I'm able bodied and have somewhat of a mind left, I'll continue working. I enjoy it. I'm starting two new businesses this year. Two totally new businesses. One in South Dakota.
Angela: What's the one in South Dakota?
Denny: Can’t disclose it at this point in time.

For the other one he's partnered with a former Disney executive. 

"We acquired the name Marilyn Monroe for spas, for service organizations. We own it exclusively," Sanford said.

Sanford says they'll be building spas, nail salons and blow dry bars that carry Marilyn Monroe beauty products. 

"I like to initiate things. I'm an entrepreneur. I love starting things," Sanford said.

With so much to do, Sanford works fast and you sense he knows his time may be running short.

"There's a great term in the bar business. I've never been in the bar business, but, 86 that guy. He's had too much to drink, so get him out; so 86 would be a good number for me. I'd be really comfortable with that," Sanford said.

But first, Sanford hopes to see his donations begin to change the world; and if Sanford was asked to write is Epitaph today?

"He lived to cure. I just came up with that. Thanks," Sanford said.

Sanford goes back and forth between his California and Arizona homes during the winter. But he keeps up his busy philanthropic schedule. He'll be at the Edith Sanford Breast Cancer race this weekend in San Diego and then he's hosting 120 people from the South Dakota Children's Home Society at his Arizona house on Monday.

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