Biography of Henry L. Hillman


Henry Lea Hillman was a nationally prominent business and civic leader, a quiet pioneer in private-equity investing, and an imaginative, far-seeing philanthropist whose gifts have enhanced and strengthened Pittsburgh, his home, through its medical, educational, research, and arts institutions as well as its human and social services initiatives. At the time of his death, Mr. Hillman was Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of The Hillman Company, the business he transformed from its industrial-era origins in coal, coke, chemicals, iron, and river transportation into a broadly diversified global investment holding company headquartered in Pittsburgh and owned by the Hillman family.

In Pittsburgh, however, Mr. Hillman is probably best known for his and his family’s extensive philanthropy. He developed and chaired the Board of Trustees of Hillman Family Foundations—the eighteen foundations associated with the Hillman family—and served as chair of the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, which he created in 1964, and the Hillman Foundation, started by his father in 1951.

Active in philanthropy until he died, Mr. Hillman most recently made a $11 million gift to Carnegie Mellon University to endow the President’s Chair. That chairmanship was later named for him. In announcing the gift, CMU President Subra Suresh said, “It is an honor and a privilege to have this chair carry the name of Henry Hillman, who has been an icon of investment, philanthropy, and community leadership in the Pittsburgh region and beyond.”

Recent major gifts also include Mr. Hillman’s personal contribution of $5 million in September 2014 to help advance neuroscience and brain research through the new BrainHUB initiative at CMU, and $2.5 million to the University of Pittsburgh in 2015 for a collaboration focused on direct current energy and microgrid technology development that integrates renewable power generation and storage. In 2014, a $5-million gift to the University of Pittsburgh established the Elsie Hillman Forum on Civic Leadership within the Institute of Politics, honoring Mr. Hillman’s late wife’s lifelong, nationally recognized commitment to community and political engagement. “The hallmark of Henry’s philanthropy has been his commitment to making Pittsburgh the best city it can be,” said Hillman Family Foundation’s President David K. Roger. “Henry had seen the city at its industrial heights, worked tirelessly as a civic leader to stem its decline, and was an integral player in its rebirth and revival. He was genuinely gratified to see the city thriving again. Thanks to his generosity and love of this place and its people, his commitment to Pittsburgh will continue through the work of the foundations he created.”

Early Life: 1918–1945

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 25, 1918, Henry L. Hillman was the fifth child and second son of John Hartwell Hillman, Jr. (1880–1959) and Juliet Cummins Lea Hillman (1885–1940). Raised in Pittsburgh, he came from a long line of iron makers. His grandfather moved from Tennessee to Pittsburgh in 1886 to start a small iron and coal brokerage firm, which his father built into a diversified industrial operation with holdings in coal and coke, steel and utilities, energy, transportation, real estate, and banking.

Mr. Hillman attended Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, The Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, and Princeton University, where he earned an A.B. degree in geology in 1941. On December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, he began military service in Washington, DC, as an aide to Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel. He became a U.S. Navy pilot in 1942, holding the rank of lieutenant and flying until the end of World War II in 1945.

One day in 1944, he was almost out the door of the bachelor officers’ quarters at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, when he heard his name called. A good friend, Toby Hilliard, was on the phone; he was in town with his little sister, Elsie, then 18. Did Henry want to meet them for dinner?

Henry Hillman and Elsie Mead Hilliard (1925–2015) were married in May 1945. “Just think, if I had missed that phone call, I might have missed Elsie!” he marveled almost seventy years later. “I am very happy that I got that call.”

Business Career

From his youth, Mr. Hillman found himself drawn irresistibly to a career in business. “My father felt, and I certainly feel, that business can be a lot of fun,” he told Forbes magazine in 1969. “You’re dealing with interesting people, interesting problems. It’s a very active and challenging game, with the signals always changing, the circumstances changing.”

Returning to Pittsburgh in December 1945, he joined Pittsburgh Coke & Chemical Company, which produced and sold coke, merchant pig iron, and such coal-derived byproducts as cement and activated carbon. J. H. Hillman & Sons (later renamed The Hillman Company) was the majority shareholder of this publicly traded firm. As vice president and a director, Mr. Hillman expanded the company’s manufacture and sale of finished chemicals and plasticizers. He negotiated one of the country’s first postwar business agreements with a German firm, Farbenfabriken Bayer A.G. (Bayer A.G.), to manufacture and sell agricultural chemicals. He became president of Pittsburgh Coke in 1955.

In 1959, as a director of Pittsburgh’s Colonial Trust Company, Mr. Hillman worked with his father to negotiate the consolidation of smaller banks and trust companies into Pittsburgh National Bank, ancestor of PNC, today one of the largest financial institutions in the United States. He served as a director of Pittsburgh National Bank from its founding until 1988.

The death of his father in 1959 put Mr. Hillman at the helm of his family’s holdings, which he expanded many fold over coming years. Believing that Pittsburgh Coke & Chemical was too small to compete with industrial titans like U.S. Steel, he immediately began to sell the company’s various divisions, eventually parlaying its Pittsburgh Activated Carbon division for a one-third interest in Calgon Corporation, then in turn selling Calgon to Merck & Company, the pharmaceutical giant. With the profits of this sale, he was able to take Pittsburgh Coke private and to remake The Hillman Company into a diversified investment firm in 1972.

Associates remember Mr. Hillman as a dynamic, creative, and inspiring business leader—a man of “remarkable vision” who constantly was on the lookout for good companies to invest in and grow. As former Hillman Company president and chairman Carl Grefenstette recalled, “On the same day a big deal would close, Henry in the next half-hour would say, ‘What’s next? Where should we be going?’ He never said, ‘Let’s relax a little bit.’”

The self-deprecating Mr. Hillman liked to remember that a management evaluation had once recorded that “Henry doesn’t like detail. He’s stuck in the future.”

“I took it as a compliment,” he laughed.

The Hillman Company developed an investment style that emphasized decentralization and diversification. Just several of the scores of companies acquired, reshaped, and sold between the 1960s and 1990s were Marion Power Shovel, Copeland Refrigeration Corporation, American Flyers Airline Corporation, Bahnson Service Company, Global Marine, Joseph Magnin, Shakespeare Company, Texstar Corporation, Perrigo, Exide, and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.

A number of these companies were bought on a leveraged basis years before the term “leveraged buyout” became commonplace in the 1980s. These acquisitions, however, were unlike some of the hostile takeovers of the later 1980s. The Hillman Company’s goal was to build value, grow a company, and see it prosper. In these and other dealings, Hillman developed a national reputation for fair and ethical business behavior.

In 1969, Forbes described Mr. Hillman as “one of the most able businessmen in the U.S. today.” Always forward-looking and possessed of an ability to recognize and act on newly evolving opportunities, he was one of the nation’s first investors to identify the potential of private-equity funds. In 1972, he became a founding limited partner in Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, an early and still influential venture capital firm that provided the seed money for some of Silicon Valley’s earliest start-ups, including Genentech, Hybritech, and Tandem Computers. In a letter to Mr. Hillman in 2011, Thomas J. Perkins wrote, “By backing Eugene [Kleiner] and me, you directly enabled the creation of Silicon Valley and everything which has flowed therefrom.”
The Hillman Company also created its own venture capital division and invested through other venture funds in startup electronics and medical technology firms, among them SEEQ Technology, Read-Rite Corporation, and, in western Pennsylvania, Respironics and Medrad. During the early 1980s the company was the largest single venture capital investor in the United States, according to Venture magazine. In 1986, The Wall Street Journal described Mr. Hillman as “the nation’s most active venture capitalist, a major force behind the development of Silicon Valley.”

Mr. Hillman recognized another opportunity in 1976, betting on three young investment bankers, Jerome Kohlberg Jr., Henry Kravis, and George R. Roberts, the founders of the New York-based leveraged buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR). Agreeing to invest $12.5 million in KKR’s initial $31-million fund, The Hillman Company became its first limited partner. Through KKR, Hillman participated in the buyouts of, among others, American Forest Products, LLC; L. B. Foster Company; Fred Meyer, Inc.; Beatrice Companies, Inc.; Duracell; and RJR Nabisco.

The Hillman Company also became what Forbes magazine described as “one of the country’s largest, and lowest-profile, commercial real estate developers,” with properties from California to Florida. Boston’s International Place, the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, DC, office buildings, housing, and resorts on the West Coast, golf courses and residential communities in Florida, and Pittsburgh’s One Fifth Avenue Place were among them.

In addition, the company’s energy exploration and investments during these years included early and active development of coal-bed methane, a dynamic new segment of the petroleum industry.

Although Mr. Hillman stepped down from day-to-day management of The Hillman Company in 2004, he remained active in the company’s governance until the time of his death.

“Imagine unique solutions” was one of his guiding business principles, and he continued to inspire employees until he died. “Henry is the kind of man who makes you proud to tell people that you work for him,” said Joseph C. Manzinger, president and CEO of The Hillman Company. “No matter how many years we had worked for him (and turnover at The Hillman Company and Hillman Family Foundations is very low), none of us ever sat down to speak with him without feeling lucky to do so. From him we learned new and better ways to think through problems. He taught us to think outside the box,” Mr. Manzinger said. “When a problem arose, he liked to hear all the possible solutions, but unless the problem had to be addressed immediately he liked to let those solutions ‘roll around in our heads’ for a while. That often led to a better solution—or the problem simply went away on its own. And behind his well-known vision, integrity, and concern for others was Henry’s extraordinary sense of humor. He always kept us smiling.”

Corporate directorships

During his career, Mr. Hillman served as a director of Chemical Bank & Trust Co. (an ancestor of JP Morgan Chase & Co.); Copeland Corporation (chairman 1970–1986); Cummins Engine Company, Inc.; Edgewater Steel; General Electric Company; Global Marine, Inc.; Marion Power Shovel; Marquette Cement Manufacturing; Merck & Co., Inc.; National Steel Corporation; Nichols-Homeshield Inc.; Pittsburgh National Bank; Shakespeare Company; Texas Gas Transmission (chairman 1959–1975); and Wilson Marine Transit.

Civic leadership and philanthropy

A leader in Pittsburgh’s civic development since the years of the city’s first “renaissance” in the late 1940s, Mr. Hillman served as a director or trustee of ACTION Housing, Inc., the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, Carnegie Institute, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, Penn’s Southwest Association, Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association, Regional Industrial Development Corporation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.

As president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development from 1967 to 1970 and as chair from 1970 to 1973, he broadened its emphasis to address the problems of African-American economic inequality. One of its major initiatives during this time was the Minority Entrepreneur Loan Program to assist new minority-owned businesses in southwestern Pennsylvania. In 1972, the Conference was instrumental in the formation of the Business Resource Center and the Regional Minority Purchasing Council, also to strengthen minority-owned businesses.

“I think it was participation on those boards that got me interested in philanthropy,” Mr. Hillman reflected years later. “When you are participating in a place where you and your family live, you get a good feel for what needs to be done.”

As chair of the Board of Trustees of Hillman Family Foundations, Mr. Hillman focused on philanthropic opportunities aimed at creating or enhancing a competitive advantage for Pittsburgh. Notable gifts have included Hillman Library of the University of Pittsburgh, Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Henry L. Hillman Fund for art acquisition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Elsie Hillman Chair in Women and Politics at Chatham University, the Elsie Hilliard Hillman Chair of Women’s Health Research at Magee-Womens Research Institute, the Hillman Professorship in Urban Ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and the Hillman Cancer Center, hub of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. The lengthy list also includes the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, Allegheny Valley School, WQED Multimedia, Phipps Conservatory, Hillman Center for Performing Arts at Shady Side Academy, and the popular ice rink and fountain at PPG Place developed by The Hillman Company during the period that it owned PPG Place.

Several years before he died, Mr. Hillman said that he found philanthropy “almost as intriguing as business. A lot of people think it’s easy to give away money,” he added. “But if you’re not careful you can just throw it away. I have discovered that giving intelligently and effectively can be just as hard as investing intelligently and effectively.”

Throughout his life, Mr. Hillman was attentive to the potential for research and new technology to enhance lives and economic growth, and his philanthropy often reflected this interest. A $10 million gift to Carnegie Mellon University in 2008 created the Hillman Center for Future-Generation Technologies, one of two connected structures that provide a home for CMU’s internationally renowned School of Computer Science. Designed to facilitate communication with the Gates Center for Computer Science (a gift of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), the Hillman Center stimulates forward-looking research that seeds innovation and critical breakthroughs in computation.

Additionally, Mr. Hillman’s support was instrumental in launching Carnegie Mellon’s Traffic 21 initiative to make Pittsburgh a world leader in smart transportation technology. His direct involvement from the start of this effort led to the university being named a Federal University Transportation Research Center in 2012.

The Hillman Foundations’ 2005 contribution of $20 million to establish the Hillman Fellows Program for Innovative Cancer Research at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and UPMC CancerCenter was the largest single grant in the university’s history to that time. A $10 million grant to Children’s Hospital, also in 2005, established the Hillman Center for Pediatric Transplantation at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Mr. Hillman served on the Children’s Hospital board for over 40 years.

Continuing support of the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library (dedicated in 1968 in memory of Mr. Hillman’s father) have helped make it an international leader in the application of information technology to library services and collections.

The Hillman Foundation was an early supporter of the internationally recognized Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and its inspiring founder, Bill Strickland, in their decades-long achievements in educating and inspiring urban youth through the arts. ACTION-Housing is another agency that has long benefited from Hillman philanthropy, most recently through an investment from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation to help create affordable housing for people who may have disabilities, be aging out of foster care, or who are homeless, autistic, victims of domestic violence, or have other needs.

Hillman gifts to Achieva have helped people with disabilities live in the community, outside of nursing homes. A recent grant to the Food Trust, in conjunction with Just Harvest, provided a match for food stamp dollars spent at farmers markets so that low-income people could buy more healthy food. Grants to United Way of Westmoreland County supported Mothers Making More, an educational initiative for single women heads of households. Ongoing support has helped the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank expand its services and also distribute much more fresh produce.

“Henry had an almost exclusive affinity for Pittsburgh and a genuine affection for Pittsburgh,” said David K. Roger, president of the Hillman Family Foundations. “He was constantly thinking about ways to help advance a new idea for making life better here. It may have been an idea for piloting new technology in medicine, transportation or energy, helping a human service provider become more effective, improving the urban landscape through better design, or helping our cultural organizations perform at their best—always with an eye toward how a project reflected on Pittsburgh and whether the city could be seen as leading the way on an international scale.”

“It was his wish that this type of philanthropy continue,” Mr. Roger said. “He ensured that the Hillman Family Foundations will always be dedicated to continuing what he started and will maintain its focus here, thanks to his generosity.”

With characteristic, low-key modesty, Mr. Hillman always praised all of Pittsburgh’s foundations for helping to bring about Pittsburgh’s recovery from the diminution of heavy industry here. “They have been a pretty steady rudder for saying, ‘Let’s keep moving ahead. Let’s try to get things done,’” he said.

Awards, honorary degrees

Mr. Hillman received numerous awards in connection with his business, civic, and philanthropic activities. He was named Industrialist of the Year by the western Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Society of Industrial Realtors, Man of the Year by Vectors/Pittsburgh, and Business Leader of the Year by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce. He received the National Human Relations Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and a Westmoreland Society Gold Medal from the Westmoreland Museum of Art.

An inductee into the Private Equity Hall of Fame, he is a Gold Medalist of The Pennsylvania Society (with his wife, Elsie Hilliard Hillman). Mr. and Mrs. Hillman were recognized jointly by many of the organizations they served, together accruing 67 awards and 11 honorary degrees. Their many joint awards paid tribute to the teamwork that characterized the couple during their 70-year marriage.

Family members, friends, and long-time associates remember Mr. Hillman as a man of great charm, a witty public speaker who nevertheless preferred to leave the spotlight to his more high-profile wife, who died in August 2015. With a twinkle in his eye, he often quipped that people knew him best as “Mr. Elsie Hillman” and frequently would tell the story of receiving an autographed photo from President George H. W. Bush, warmly inscribed to “Elsie and Harvey.”

Mr. Hillman is survived by his four children, Juliet L. H. (Lea) Simonds of Pittsburgh, Audrey Hillman Fisher of Pittsburgh, Henry Lea Hillman, Jr. of Portland, Oregon, and William Talbott Hillman of New York; ten grandchildren, and sixteen great-grandchildren.


Annual reports, Pittsburgh Coke & Chemical Company.

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Brignano, Mary. A Commitment to Philanthropy: The Hillman Foundation’s Fiftieth Anniversary. Pittsburgh, PA, 2002.

Brignano, Mary. The Hillman Company: A History. Private publication, Pittsburgh, PA, 2015.

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