Foster Friess, investment manager and philanthropist, dies at 81
WILMINGTON – Foster Friess, a multimillionaire investment manager who launched his career in Wilmington’s corporate jungle with his own firm Friess Associates and its vaunted Brandywine Funds, died Thursday at age 81, according to his family.
A self-made man born on a Midwest farm, Friess was well-known for donating millions to Republican candidates and $500 million to various philanthropic efforts over the decades, like rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, Christian mobile medical services and those who battle addiction.
“Foster’s passing is a loss for Delaware, but also for Wyoming, Arizona, and many other locales globally in which he was so active and seemingly ever-present,” said Jack Fraser, managing partner of Seamark Capital and a longtime friend of Friess. “He and his wife Lynn have been active supporters of numerous charities and ministries targeted towards supporting those of our communities in need. Most of that support was done quietly in the background, out of the public eye.”
But if anything, he was known for his larger-than-life spirit, his generosity, and wearing a cowboy hat when he came back for visits and functions in the First State.
“Foster Friess wasn’t a shy guy, and he was an open book,” said David Marky, the chief operating officer of Friess Associates, the Wilmington investment firm that Friess started almost 40 years ago. “When he was at an event, you knew it because he just lit up a room. He just knew how to make people feel special, no matter who he was talking to.”
Friess was born in Rice Lake, Wis., and later received a degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin. After serving as a military intelligence officer, Friess later moved to Delaware to become an investor in the mid-1960s. He first joined the Brittingham family-controlled NYSE member firm in Wilmington, where he worked up the ranks and became director of research.
In 1974, Friess and his wife Lynn launched their own investment management firm, Friess Associates. While the first year was so hard, it was barely enough to feed his family. He became a self-professed workaholic in the early years of the firm, but later turned to Christianity to guide his way back to a well-balanced life.
“He was at the forefront of the birth of mutual fund investing,” said Jaime Murray, who worked director of Du Pont’s Corporate Brands and met Friess roughly 50 years ago .”In the 1970s while Lynn was caring for his son somewhere north of Philly, Foster would often have dinner meetings in Wilmington and come stay with me on Lovering Avenue. He would come after a long day with his arms full of financial journals and reports. The light in his bedroom would stay on well into the early morning hours.
Once the firm became more successful, Friess launched the Brandywine Fund 10 years later and the Brandywine Blue Fund in the early 1990s. The two mutual funds pushed Friess Associates into the top boutique growth-equity managers and reported 20% annual gains as the 2000s began. Friess’s firm grew to $17 billion under his management, and CNBC lauded him as “one of the century’s great investors.”
“Foster pursued excellence in everything he did, and held his Friess Associates teammates to those same high standards, ” said Fraser, who worked at the firm in the mid 1990s. “He had an unusual ability to identify outstanding prospective teammates that held great promise, understand what they could become, and then encourage and support them to achieve excellence. The superb teams he built in Friess Associates helps explain their tremendous success over the many years dating back to 1974, and why they remain well regarded asset managers today.”
During his time in Delaware, Friess was known for iconic birthday parties where you had to register a charity at the door so he could donate money, said Michelle Rollins, an entrepreneur who operates Rose Hall resorts in Jamaica. As his success grew, she said the checks got larger, she added.
Friess and Rollins were both active in the Delaware Republican Party, and she said that he was the “consummate behind-the-scenes” energy through fundraising efforts. She said that Friess was behind almost every major GOP gubernatorial campaign in Delaware, as well as some races on a federal level.
“His love for his country was almost as strong as his love for God and family. He supported candidates who shared his beliefs and put ‘America first’ long before it became the motto for Donald Trump,” Rollins added. “He was really motivated about getting young people involved. and giving back. He had such a generous heart.”
That generosity also extended to giving others his time. EDiS CEO Brian DiSabatino first met Friess 30 years ago when he served as chair of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce’s Young Executives Committee and asked Friess to give a talk about business about 30 years ago.
“Instead, he gave a talk about his faith. At the time, it was a shock to hear someone that successful speak about faith so openly. It had a profound effect on me, to not hide my faith as a part of my own identity,” DiSabatino said.
He later became Friess’s mentee, although it was not without some work. DiSabatino described Friess as a man always in motion who would frequently need to be chased.
“He was very anti-meeting. You had to run in front of him, and that was part of the beauty of it,” DiSabatino said. “So you needed to catch him at the golf course or at breakfast. But once you showed him you needed the help, he gave you all the attention in the world. And it wasn’t just about business mentoring, it was personal issues and philanthropic issues.”
By late 2001, Affiliated Manager Group (AMG) acquired a majority interest in Friess Associates after succession planning efforts. When William D’Alonzo became the firm’s president and CEO, Friess officially retired to his ranch in Cody, Wyo., and his second home in Scottsdale, Ariz. But unofficially, he still remained close to the firm’s activities through Friess Associates offices in both states, although the Arizona office has since closed.
“Foster was a driven businessman who knew how to bring out the best in the people who worked for him. He was also a guy who enjoyed taking a group of his teammates out to lunch and leaving the waitress a tip that far exceeded the bill,” Friess Associates Communications Director Chris Aregood said.
“Foster and his wife ultimately made their commitment to making the world a better place official and ongoing by creating the Lynn and Foster Friess Family Foundation,” Aregood continued. “Of all the great things Foster accomplished during his lifetime, we hope people remember Foster as a person who committed himself to imparting life lessons to the people around him through simple acts of kindness.”
After leaving the firm behind, Friess spent most of his time traveling and donating funds to political and philanthropic causes through the Friess Family Foundation. It is estimated that he donated about $7 million to hundreds of candidates since the early 1980s, including presidential nominees, according to the Associated Press.
Friess notably supported Rick Santorum’s unsuccessful campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Six years later, Friess tried his hand at politics with a run for Wyoming’s governor seat and even secured the nomination of President Donald Trump. He ultimately lost in the primary to then-State Treasurer Mark Gordon, coming in second.
Friess also spent his time with his family, as well as playing rounds of golf on visits and hunting excursions in Wyoming with friends. Marky remembered fondly about a time after he went golfing with Friess at the Wilmington Country Club, and he went out of his way to introduce his group to the locker room attendant.
“He told us, ‘This is the guy who knows the nuts and bolts about this place,’ and you could see that it really had an impact,” said Marky, who met Friess through the firm in 2000. “When we had company Christmas parties, he took the time out to publicly and sincerely thank the staff for taking time away from their families. He just really wanted people, no matter who they were, to feel special and have that connection with them.”
Friess was not without his quirks. He could be so passionate about conversing with friends at the dinner table that only one person could speak while the rest would have to pay attention.
“He used to threaten to throw dinner rolls at people. But he wanted people to have the dignity of being seen and heard,” DiSabatino recalled. “It got to the point he would bring votive candles at restaurants, because he wanted everyone to have a little light shine when they sat. He’d walk out of the restaurant if they didn’t let him, but eventually he caught on they were more receptive if they were battery-operated.”
Among his philanthropic efforts, Friess and his wife sponsored the Water Mission’s work to provide clean water in the East African nation of Malawi, donating to relief efforts like the Indonesian tsunami and the Haiti earthquake. But he also sponsored mobile medical services in Wilmington and Chester, Pa., as well as several local causes in Wyoming.
“He was the most generous spirit,” Marky said. “There wasn’t a community he was associated with that did not reap the benefits of him being a part of it. He really was an inspiration and he will truly be missed.”
Once, Friess’s daughter Tracy talked him into bestowing a gift to Saint Francis Healthcare’s prenatal program. As he unveiled his gift to the committee, each member spoke about how important his gift was and Friess was “moved to tears,” DiSabatino said. He later gave another multi-million gift to the Wilmington health care system.
Friess used to joke that if it was “his money” he would not be giving it away, but since it was “borrowed from God, it needed to be shared,” DiSabatino said.
“He understood that as someone from Rice Lake who made it to an unusual level of wealth, he had the opportunity to affect things on an international scale. He lived like he was a steward of this money, and he wanted to do more with it,” he added.
In 2012, he was awarded the Horatio Alger Award, which honors the achievements of outstanding Americans who have succeeded in spite of adversity in part due to their higher education. He was later named “Humanitarian of the Year” at the National Charity Awards Dinner in Washington, D.C., in 2000. Rollins said that once she asked friends if they would be interested in coming to D.C. to see Friess receive the award – and so many people came that they had to charter two busses for the trip.
“Every so often America loses a legend. Foster Friess was just that, a true Horatio Alger story. A life that can happen ‘only in America,'” Rollins said. “He will be missed as a friend and an American patriot.”
In late 2020, Friess was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a bone marrow cancer. He died surrounded by his family at his home in Scottsdale, according to a statement from Foster’s Outriders political and philanthropic organization.
“We are grateful for the wonderful life Foster lived and thankful to the many people who have shared their prayers during his illness. We know many of you mourn with us, and we will have more details soon on Foster’s funeral,” his family said in a statement.