• Read more about Gary and Mary West: The Wests' organization includes nonprofit, for-profit ventures
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When self-made billionaires Gary and Mary West left Omaha and retired to San Diego after selling most of their stake in West Corp. in 2006, they did not simply ride off into the sunset to enjoy retirement in luxury.
The couple, now both 67, have forged a new life in Southern California as major philanthropists who, with no children, aim to give away their wealth before they die. They have given more than $400 million toward supporting their main causes, senior citizen wellness and cutting the nation's health care costs.
And with plans announced this week to take Omaha-based West Corp. public again, their main foundation, an owner of some of West Corp.'s stock, will have new wealth to spend.
The Wests declined to be interviewed, but their attorney and two staff members say they are motivated by a desire to repay their good fortune through causes that have a personal meaning, and in a way that takes a results-oriented approach — not surprising for executives who built one of Omaha's biggest employers.
Those who know them also say the Wests have maintained their Midwestern roots and values. While they own a $7 million home in Rancho Santa Fe and are active in their hobby of Thoroughbred horse racing — some of their horses are potential Kentucky Derby contenders this spring — the Wests also keep a low profile in the community and in the press.
Gary West favors Levi's and Nikes, roots for the Huskers and the San Diego Chargers, and prefers to cook at home rather than eat out, though he's welcome at the West Steak and Seafood restaurant he owns as part of a hotel complex, where the menu includes Nebraska “corn-finished” Angus beef.
Gary West was born in Council Bluffs and grew up in Harlan, Iowa, where his parents owned a bowling alley. He moved to Omaha at 19, attended Dana College in Blair, Neb., according to Forbes, and served in the Army during the Vietnam War. In 1968, the Forbes bio says, he married Mary, who grew up in Miami and moved to Omaha during high school.
Neither earned a college degree, but they are considered pioneers in telemarketing for their work building WATS Marketing of America, which was sold in 1980 to First Data Resources, and later West Corp.
They received a combined $1.45 billion for their stake in West Corp. when it went private in 2006, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and kept a stake in the company that could be worth $355 million at the proposed middle price point if West Corp. goes public again this spring as planned.
The business employs 35,700 globally and about 3,700 in Omaha, with annual sales of $2.6 billion. West is the largest U.S. provider of telephone conference calls and is among the leading providers of software to run 911 emergency switchboards. Other businesses include cloud computing and handling customer service telephone inquiries for other companies.
West announced Monday it plans a public share offering worth as much as $532 million.
The Wests had vacationed in San Diego years before making it their primary residence. When they sold West Corp. in 2006, they turned for help to Ron Santoni, a former Creighton University School of Law professor and attorney with the Erickson Sederstrom law office in Omaha, who now lives in the San Diego area.
“Gary said, 'What do you know about foundations?' ” Santoni recalled. “I think they really had it in the back of their mind that they've been fortunate, that they've had wealth, and wanted to do the appropriate things with it.”
Santoni helped establish the Gary and Mary West Foundation, which has four areas of focus: Lowering the cost of health care; supporting senior wellness initiatives; supporting youth employment training; and supporting training programs for service dogs that will help seniors and veterans.
Santoni and others said those interests are close to the Wests' hearts and experiences. Mary West, he said, cared for her elderly mother and wanted to know, “What can we do for elderly people?” That led to the development of the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center, which opened in 2010 in San Diego, offering meals, social experiences and preventive health care for seniors.
The Wests' experience running a large company fueled their interest in lowering the nation's runaway health care costs, which led to their founding of West Health, an umbrella initiative of four organizations that fund policy initiatives and research in health care technology.
Their concern for students who might not have the opportunity to go to college led to their interest in helping urban youths find access to employment.
And the couple have not retired from private, for-profit business. The staff members said proceeds from the West Partners private equity and real estate investment firm are put back to use to fund their charitable and health care work. Santoni said the goal is that the foundation and the Wests' charitable work does not exhaust its funds and “sunset,” but rather continue on under other leadership when the Wests die.
The foundation does not accept unsolicited grant requests and sets up strict outcome expectations for its grants. With multi-year grants, future installments are contingent upon the recipient charity meeting certain milestones.
“They are not interested in giving money away,” said Shelley Valentine, president of the Gary and Mary West Foundation. They know the results of giving money away without expectations are not going to be high-impact results, she said.
While spending most of their time in California, the Wests still maintain a home in Omaha in the Regency neighborhood, and a stake in the Miracle Hill Golf & Tennis club near West Corp.'s corporate headquarters on Miracle Hills Drive.
Their foundation has funded numerous organizations here.
One is the Notre Dame Sisters of Omaha, Catholic nuns who operate 107 apartments for low-income senior citizens on their historic site, which also houses their convent. Dennis Henkenius, vice president of advancement, said a $100,000 contribution from the West Foundation allowed the group to complete renovations on some of the apartments to prepare them for senior residents.
In 2008, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands was worried about how it would maintain operations at a time when employment and banking troubles had most nonprofit organizations afraid that contributions would drop dramatically. The West Foundation's $75,000 contribution that year helped stave off reduced hours and even prevented shuttering some of the nine clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands.
“The Wests helped position us for where we are today,” said Todd Engle, president of the organization's board. “And that is with more kids than ever coming into our clubs.”
Other local organizations that have received West funding include Creighton University; Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly; Rebuilding Together Omaha; the Merrymakers Association; the National Safety Council, Nebraska; the YWCA; the American Red Cross Heartland Chapter; and the City of Omaha Police Foundation for a K9 training facility.
An old friend and colleague from Omaha, Steve Idelman, said he isn't surprised that the Wests continue to work hard and found new businesses and initiatives even after the traditional retirement age.
“I would never expect anything Gary and Mary did to be anything less than over-the-top successful and monumental,” said Idelman, the chief executive officer of Solutionary, an Omaha information security company.
He reported to Gary West after both had sold firms to First Data and continued working there in telemarketing. Idelman called West his mentor and “a brilliant leader of business” who left a lasting mark on Omaha, even if he was never a very public figure.
Despite all their success, there is one accomplishment the Wests still hope to achieve.
After more than 30 years of owning and racing horses, they've never had one win the Kentucky Derby, despite having horses run the race three times, according to USA Today.
Their horses Flashback, Code West and Treasury Bill are considered contenders for this year's Derby race, said Santoni, also a racing fan.
“That's what everybody shoots for.”
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