2011 SUCCESS Achiever of the Year: Michael Bloomberg

UPDATED: May 17, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 6, 2012

As he stood on the rooftop of the Z NYC Hotel, with the iconic Manhattan skyline glistening in the afternoon sunlight behind him, Michael Bloomberg deftly fielded questions from a group of journalists.

The 108th mayor of New York City was clearly in his element: confident, persuasive, in command of the facts, comfortable dealing with topics ranging from the troubled presidential campaign of Herman Cain to the Occupy Wall Street encampment to the intricacies of the city’s budgetary process.

Bloomberg had come from City Hall to Long Island City, Queens, to celebrate the opening of Z NYC, a boutique hotel built by real estate developer Henry Zilberman (hence the “Z” in its name). It was Bloomberg’s second scheduled media stop on a surprisingly balmy Monday in November. At 7:30 a.m., encircled by a media throng, he had greeted commuters at a bus stop on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, where he touted the city’s new curbside fare payment machines designed to get riders aboard the bus faster.

The Queens event that afternoon provided Bloomberg a chance to promote his administration’s record on economic development. While city officials, local hotel executives and Queens politicians looked on, Bloomberg rattled off the impressive statistics: New York’s tourism industry now represented a $31 billion-a-year industry employing an estimated 323,000 workers; a boom in hotel construction meant a record 90,000 rooms would be available by the end of 2011, a 24 percent increase since 2006.

Bloomberg also took the opportunity to argue that his pro-growth policies and fiscal prudence had helped New York City emerge from the national recession faster than the rest of the country.

“If you look in all four directions,” he said, “the city is booming.”

Left unsaid but implied was that the city’s prosperity and improved civic finances served as proof positive that Bloomberg had been right in engineering a change in the city’s term limits law to allow him to seek, and win, a third term in 2009. His critics at the time had called it a power grab. His supporters had argued that as a veteran of Wall Street, Bloomberg was uniquely qualified to help New York deal with the economic meltdown triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Just hours after his appearance in Queens, Bloomberg shifted roles from civic booster to crisis manager. He had parried questions about the Occupy Wall Street protest during his rooftop news conference, giving no indication that he was ready to order the New York police to evict the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park, as two of the city’s daily newspapers (the Daily News and New York Post) had recommended. The Occupy movement, which began in the city’s financial district on Sept. 17, gained global attention with its protest against economic inequality, its echoes of the 1960s counterculture and its catchy slogan “We are the 99 percent.”

While sharply critical of their rhetoric, Bloomberg had resisted calls to oust the demonstrators for almost two months (perhaps mindful of his status as one of the wealthy 1 percent). Convinced that health and safety conditions had become intolerable in the tent city, Bloomberg decided to act, he said later. In the early hours of Tuesday morning he sent police in riot gear to take control of the park. They arrested some 200 protestors and quickly dismantled the site.

Despite complaints about heavy-handed tactics by the NYPD and a brief failed attempt in the courts to reestablish the camp, Bloomberg accomplished his goal: ending the 24/7 occupation and reopening the park to the public. Most downtown residents and small-business owners in the neighborhood were delighted.

The dramatic ouster of the Occupy protestors made news around the world. It proved a symbolic setback of some significance for the OWS movement. Mayors in Los Angeles and Boston followed Bloomberg’s lead and cleared out their Occupy encampments; judges agreed protesters had no First Amendment right to erect encampments in public spaces.

In defending his decision, Bloomberg made a point of repeating his longtime support for free speech. “New York City is the city where you can come and express yourself,” he explained at a news conference. “What was happening in Zuccotti Park was not that.”

New Yorkers weren’t surprised by Bloomberg’s bold move. Over the past decade they had grown accustomed to their high-energy mayor’s willingness to take calculated risks. They could count upon him to do things his way. And his way, the Bloomberg way, has become shorthand for a mixture of measured decisiveness and relentless determination. It has served Bloomberg well during his remarkable career as media entrepreneur, CEO mayor and committed philanthropist.

A Unique American Figure

In fact, there is no figure on the American scene quite like Michael Rubens Bloomberg.

His considerable leadership talents were on clear public display over the past year: ordering a mandatory evacuation of low-lying areas of the city when Hurricane Irene threatened; orchestrating the 10th anniversary ceremony for victims of 9/11 while keeping a watchful eye for possible terrorist attacks; managing a difficult, and worsening, city budget; dealing with the Occupy Wall Street movement; and, near the end of the year, choosing Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to build a new $2 billion applied sciences and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island that would help New York City compete nationally for high-tech startups.

At the same time Bloomberg was successfully managing these situations, his city experienced considerable progress in its quality-of-life measures. “Public safety is any mayor’s No. 1 priority, and so the fact that crime continues to be at record lows—it’s 35 percent lower than it was when I first took office—is very good news,” Bloomberg told SUCCESS. “This was a very tough year for the national economy, but New York City has outpaced the nation in job growth—something we’ve worked very hard to do. For instance, New York has recently overtaken Boston in venture funding for tech startups, putting us behind only Silicon Valley. And we hit a lot of other very important milestones in 2011, including progress on high school graduation rates and a record number of tourists.”

His accomplishments in business, politics and charitable giving have caused one longtime observer, Alec Horniman, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School, to compare Bloomberg to Benjamin Franklin, another American entrepreneur from Boston who fashioned a brilliant commercial and public career.

“Bloomberg has been successful in every venture he has undertaken,” Horniman noted. “Very few people can lay claim to success in so many different endeavors.”

In her biography of Bloomberg, veteran New York reporter Joyce Purnick wrote: “He has lived out the American dream, written his own Horatio Alger story, and used his power and wealth to upset the conventions of both finance and urban politics and to chart a unique path in giving away money.”

Forbes magazine estimated Bloomberg’s net worth at $19.5 billion in November 2011, making him the 12th-richest person in the United States. The Broad Foundation’s Eli Broad ranks Bloomberg as the country’s leading philanthropist, not only for his considerable financial contributions to charity, but also for using his “bully pulpit to draw attention to issues as varied as public health, arts, education and gun safety.”

And Bloomberg has served as the media-savvy leader of a city considered the cultural and financial capital of the world. He flirted with the idea of running for president in 2008 before rejecting the idea. Bloomberg joked that America wasn’t ready for a “short, divorced Jewish billionaire” to be its president, but unlike fellow New Yorker Donald Trump, his potential candidacy was taken seriously by professionals in both major parties.

His Critics

The Bloomberg way is, however, not universally admired. The Occupy Wall Street protestors were not the first to discover that Bloomberg could wield power in a forceful and unapologetic manner to achieve his own goals. Some questioned whether he had been motivated by health and safety issues or by a desire to short-circuit OWS’s announced day of action to “Shut Down Wall Street” and “Occupy the Subways” later that week (protests that failed to attract the large crowds that organizers had predicted). The New York Times criticized the raid and editorialized that “he must keep his promise to support the protesters’ right to speak up about income inequality, especially in the city’s financial district.”

Bloomberg’s aggressive tactics in reforming New York’s massive public school system have also come under fire. Shutting down schools with low test scores angered many community groups and parents. The teachers’ union has objected to his drive to link teacher pay to student test scores. Bloomberg’s appointment of former media executive Cathie Black as schools chancellor backfired, and he had to dismiss her last April after only three months on the job when it became clear that she was poorly suited for the role.

Many New Yorkers found his decision to push for a third mayoral term troubling. Bloomberg abandoned his long-held support of the city’s term limits law. When polls showed the public didn’t like the idea, he bypassed a voter referendum on changing the law, and instead persuaded the city council to amend it. It wasn’t the most difficult sales job, because incumbent council members were also governed by the law and were happy to have a chance to extend their own stay in office.

Voters gave Bloomberg a third term (he spent some $105 million on his campaign), but he damaged his reputation in some people’s eyes: The editors of the New Republic wrote “the way he went about rewriting the city’s laws in order to secure a third term for himself was shameful and arrogant.”

To most, though, it was just pure Bloomberg: nothing less than a force of nature seizing what he wanted—not just for himself, but for the greater good.

A Complex Personality

Like many successful leaders, Bloomberg is a complex person. Friends describe him as loyal, thoughtful, honest and kind. Yet there is somewhat of a dark side to his personality: He can be crude, sarcastic and profane (although he has reportedly mellowed over his years in office).

He built his company, Bloomberg L.P., on egalitarian principles (no private offices or reserved parking spaces for managers), but developed a reputation as a tough, sarcastic and often crass taskmaster. Before his first mayoral run, he was hit with a series of sexual harassment suits from women alleging that he had made inappropriate sexual comments. Bloomberg denied any wrongdoing, but the suits (which never made it to court) did expose a raunchy locker-room atmosphere at his firm.

Bloomberg expresses his opinions bluntly and directly. Never shy about expressing his contrarian views, he has campaigned for stricter gun control laws and for gay marriage. A former smoker, he championed a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, and then pushed to extend it to the city’s parks and beaches (moves that infuriated many libertarians). Bloomberg defended the right of Muslims to build the so-called Ground Zero mosque and community center near the site of the 9/11 attacks as a matter of religious tolerance: “We would betray our values—and play into our enemies’ hands—if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else,” he explained.

Bloomberg has shifted along the political spectrum from traditional Democrat to moderate Republican to post-partisan Independent. He is a social liberal but a fiscal conservative who defends the “wonders of capitalism.”

Bloomberg can be a persuasive speaker, but he also recognizes that action carries its own eloquence. A staunch defender of free speech, his relationship with the press has often been strained. He tightly controls his media interactions but has stirred controversy with blunt public pronouncements (just weeks after the OWS eviction, he told MIT students that he had his own army in the form of the NYPD, mentioned that he had smoked marijuana in college, and suggested that it might be feasible to double class sizes in the city’s public schools).

By all accounts, Bloomberg is comfortable in his own skin. “I am what I am,” he once said in defending his sometimes brusque personal style.

A Modest Background

Bloomberg’s background is relatively modest. He grew up in Medford, Mass., a middle-class Boston suburb. His father was a bookkeeper for a dairy. His mother stressed the values of independence and perseverance.

Looking back, Bloomberg credits his upbringing for his entrepreneurial bent. “I’m sure it started with my parents—or at least that’s where I learned about the importance of a strong work ethic. My dad worked six days a week until he died, and after he died, my mother went back to work to support my sister and me. Maybe some of it also comes from becoming an Eagle Scout, which gave me a sense of what you could accomplish if you really put your mind to it.” He completed the merit badges for Eagle Scout before he was old enough to hold the rank.

Bloomberg’s drive took him first to Johns Hopkins University, where he majored in engineering, and then to Harvard Business School. He landed a job with the trading firm Salomon Brothers in New York, becoming the company’s first Harvard MBA. He prospered as a trader and in managing the firm’s information technology, becoming a general partner.

If not for a twist of fate, Bloomberg would have most likely remained a highly compensated, relatively anonymous Wall Street executive.

Entrepreneurial Breakthrough

Michael Bloomberg’s near-mythic rise as an entrepreneurial visionary began with a personal setback. In 1981 he was fired at Salomon Brothers, a casualty of office politics and a sudden merger.

He departed with $10 million and the novel idea of offering Wall Street traders a new kind of data system that would provide a competitive edge. With a few colleagues, Bloomberg founded Innovative Market Systems (later renamed Bloomberg L.P.) At the heart of this startup was the Bloomberg terminal, a device that allowed money managers to analyze real-time bond prices and their relative values so they could make better trades. Bloomberg’s system represented a revolutionary advance for the investment industry.

“He really built Bloomberg in a classically disruptive way,” commented Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor with expertise in innovation. “It was instinctive for him.”

Bloomberg proved to be a relentless salesman, convincing Merrill Lynch to lease his innovative terminals and then branching out to other trading firms. Bloomberg L.P. became a global brand, moving into business journalism with Bloomberg News and competing with the entrenched incumbents, Dow Jones and Reuters.

Later the company added radio, television and websites. Bloomberg’s risk-taking paid off: The privately held Bloomberg L.P. now leases some 300,000 terminals to traders around the world, delivers well-regarded business news in multiple formats and garners an estimated $7 billion in annual sales.

Reflecting on his success, Bloomberg cited the many factors in play: “Entrepreneurship involves risk and hard work—and luck.” He had words of encouragement, based on his experience, for would-be innovators: “If you believe in an idea and you’re willing to work like crazy and deal with all the frustrations and setbacks, go for it and don’t look back. You may not succeed, but you won’t regret it. And when you start your next journey, you’ll be stronger and smarter for it.”

He also emphasized the pursuit of excellence. “Don’t be afraid to aim high. I tell all my commissioners: If you hit every goal, you’re not aiming high enough. It’s always important to push yourself to do what may seem impossible. Sometimes it will be. But risking failure is part of achieving success.”

Entering Public Life

When Bloomberg announced his candidacy for mayor of New York City in June 2001 at the age of 59, it surprised many political observers. Why would he pursue such a thankless job? Why would he risk damaging his reputation as a winner? Didn’t he realize how many business executives had failed in making the transition to the public sector?

Some didn’t see his entry into politics as a bolt from the blue. College friends remembered Bloomberg saying that his three dream jobs were president of the United States, secretary-general of the United Nations and head of the World Bank. Being mayor of New York City represented a similar high-profile public role. Bloomberg told Purnick, his biographer, that after 20 years of building his company, he needed a new challenge.

Bloomberg confounded the skeptics. He ran a characteristically energetic and well-funded campaign. In November 2001 he came from behind in the polls to narrowly defeat his Democratic opponent on Election Day.

In his first term as mayor, he proved that a CEO mayor could produce results. Bloomberg closed an inherited $4 billion budget gap by making deep spending cuts and raising property taxes (despite a no-new-taxes campaign pledge). He focused on education reform: He established mayoral control over the city’s massive school system, made principals accountable for student performance and embraced charter schools.

Other creative initiatives included the establishment of a 3-1-1 customer-service hotline and the introduction of a sustainability program, PlaNYC, that aimed at “greening the city.” Bloomberg also sought to revive New York’s waterfront and to promote economic development for all five of the city’s boroughs.

Bloomberg didn’t alter his leadership style: “I’ve brought the same approach to government as I had in business: Look at the facts, make decisions on the merits, empower your employees to think boldly, and never be afraid to fail. That’s what innovation is all about—and it’s a key to success in any career.”

When asked about his major accomplishments as mayor, Bloomberg highlighted improvements in the city’s quality of life and its public education system: “I think you could make an argument for our public health initiatives because life expectancy is now 19 months longer than it was when I first came into office. You could also make an argument for our record on public safety, or on bringing back Lower Manhattan after 9/11, or our sweeping sustainability agenda. But there’s no doubt that right up there at the top would have to be our education reforms.

“There is nothing more important than giving our children the skills and knowledge they need to have successful careers. The stronger our schools, the stronger our city. We still have plenty of work to do in our schools, but we’ve made huge progress in closing the gap with the rest of the state and giving parents more top-quality school choices.”

Bloomberg’s performance in City Hall has been impressive. There have been some missteps. He failed in a bid to bring the Olympics to New York in 2012. When his Department of Sanitation bungled the cleanup of a blizzard in 2010, Bloomberg’s initial nonchalance (“The world has not come to an end.… It was a very heavy snowfall. We’re cleaning it up.”) did not sit well with many New Yorkers.

But Bloomberg brought a can-do attitude and a calming presence to a city reeling from the psychic and economic impact of the 9/11 attacks. Under his leadership, New York City has prospered, race relations have improved and his signature initiatives in public health and education have made a positive difference. Many believe that historians will rank Bloomberg as one of New York’s greatest mayors, second only perhaps to Fiorello LaGuardia, who guided the city through the Great Depression.

Philanthropic Leader

Bloomberg’s sense of mission has extended to his philanthropic efforts as well. When asked about his motivation for giving, he cited a childhood memory: “Every year my father would sit down and write out a check to the NAACP. He made a modest salary, but every year he wrote this check. One year, I asked him why, and he said, ‘Discrimination against anyone is a threat to everyone.’ And that’s always stuck with me.”

Bloomberg has channeled hundreds of millions of dollars through Bloomberg Philanthropies, his charitable foundation, to varied causes. He has funded anti-tobacco and other public health initiatives as well as donating generously to charitable, cultural and educational institutions, including Johns Hopkins and Harvard. He has pledged to give away most of his wealth, joking “that the ultimate in financial planning is to bounce the check to the undertaker. I’m gonna try to do that.”

Bloomberg has noted that the famous American philanthropists of the past (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Frick, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Duke) are remembered more for the lasting impact of their charitable giving than for the companies they founded or the great wealth they amassed. It is clear that he hopes to leave a similar legacy.

His Future

What does the immediate future hold for Michael Bloomberg? He has ruled out a bid for the White House in 2012. Some of his admirers hope that Americans Elect, a bipartisan group promoting a third-party candidacy, will draft him through its nationwide Internet nominating process this summer and that he will change his mind and run for president. That scenario remains highly unlikely.

It’s also unlikely that Bloomberg will fade from the public scene when his term as mayor ends in 2013. He has too much energy.

As he told SUCCESS: “I love what I do. Always have. I love Mondays. I look forward to coming into the office. That doesn’t mean every day is stress free—far from it. But that’s part of the fun. I always tell college graduates to find a job they’re passionate about—even if the salary is less than what they could make elsewhere—because it will bring out the best in you. You can only fulfill your career potential if you’re working for a company or a cause you really believe in.”

So look for Michael Bloomberg to remain involved and engaged in the years ahead, an active and outspoken player in American politics and philanthropy. And don’t doubt that he will do it his own way, the Bloomberg way.

10 Facts About Michael Bloomberg

His better-known friends include Barbara Walters, gossip columnist Liz Smith and Obama’s “car czar” Steve Rattner. He was also close with the late opera star Beverly Sills.   Can still recite Longfellow’s poem The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.   Became first Jewish member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at Johns Hopkins.   An amateur pilot, twice made emergency landings: once with a rented helicopter after engine failure and once with a private plane after its propeller was damaged.   Once voted Manhattan’s most eligible bachelor.   An accomplished skier, helped locate and rescue a friend buried by an avalanche in British Columbia.   His company’s computer terminal was dubbed “The Bloomberg” by Wall Street traders.   The Vatican leased a Bloomberg terminal, but church officials declined a request to have the pope provide a blurb for his autobiography Bloomberg by Bloomberg.   Won the 2005 election with nearly 60 percent of the vote.   Gave away $1.4 billion in donations and pledges between 2004 and 2010, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. That works out to an astounding $639,269 a day.

Read more about the 2011 SUCCESS Achiever of the Year nominees including Co-Founder of Google, Larry Page; Co-Founder of the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington; Groupon CEO, Andrew Mason; and Egyptian citizen Wael Ghonim.