Brooklyn Boro

Alan Fishman: Banking wizard, innovative philanthropist, from Crown Heights to crown prince of borough renaissance

May 20, 2020 Editorial Staff
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Cecilia Clarke, a nationally celebrated leader in nonprofit charitable work and now head of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, recalls an interview for her job seven years ago. She met Alan Fishman, chair of the foundation, for breakfast in the Heights. It was her final interview for the job.

“During our conversation, Alan and I had a difference of opinion,” Clarke told the Eagle. “After the breakfast, I called my husband and said that I didn’t think I was going to get this job, that I had an argument with the chairman. But then I heard that Alan also made a call after breakfast, and he said to a board member, ‘She is the ONE: we got into an argument over breakfast. Just terrific!’”

Clarke added, “I love this story because it tells a lot about Alan. In the end, he is never interested in power for power’s sake. He is always trying to advance, create and build. Any opportunity to generate good ideas is what drives him.”

As a banker and builder, Fishman is credited for creating the structure to make the Brooklyn Community Foundation the transformative force it is today. How he did it is a great Brooklyn story.

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Born in Crown Heights, Fishman has deep Brooklyn roots. Toughened up on public neighborhood courts, he later experienced stardom on the Erasmus Hall High School basketball team while teammates with the legendary Billy Cunningham (who was later an All-American at UNC). Alan went the Ivy League route at Brown, where he was All Ivy in basketball and began to fancy finance. Later, he received his Masters in Finance from Columbia University.

President and CEO Cecilia Clarke of the Brooklyn Community Foundation. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Community Foundation

Moving back to Brooklyn in the late 1960s , Fishman rose in the corporate ranks of Chemical Bank to become one of the top three leaders at the bank’s Park Avenue headquarters. He also became active in the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation and other Brooklyn organizations (including a pivotal role on the board of Brooklyn Union Gas Company), and was the leading figure at Independence Savings Bank after the company was taken public.

Contiguous with bringing the bank public — a move not without controversy among its board — was the creation of the Independence Community Foundation. Charles Hamm, then Chairman of the Independence board, recalled that the impetus for creating the foundation originally was a nod to former chairman Bill Levin, a legendary figure in Brooklyn business, civic and cultural affairs.

“Bill had always opposed going public,” recalled Hamm. “Though the board voted in favor of going public, with an eye to the future, my job was to tell Bill about this vote. He was held in such high regard that we knew he would be somewhat mollified by creation of the foundation, as a way of giving back to Brooklyn.”

Indeed, the initial capital for setting up the Independence Foundation, about $55 million, according to Hamm, came from the new stockholders when the bank went public. “I became chairman of the foundation,” recalled Hamm, “and I asked Alan, who was celebrated by all of us on the board as a brilliant banker, to become president and CEO of the bank.” Robert Catell, another Brooklyn-born leader who rose in the ranks to become Chairman of Brooklyn Union Gas, had recruited Fishman to be on the BUGCo board. “Alan was absolutely brilliant in our negotiations for Brooklyn Union Gas to merge with Keyspan,” Catell recently told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Alan Fishman is credited for creating the structure to make the Brooklyn Community Foundation the transformative force it is today. Photo: Kate Attardo/Brooklyn Eagle

“I was a board member of Independence during the period we took it public,” said Catell. “I recall the immense respect for Bill Levin and full board endorsement of the Independence Community Foundation. All of us were serving such broad aspects of Brooklyn life in other board positions. The foundation was a win-win for everyone.”

According to a 1997 article in the New York Times, the Independence Savings Bank was one of the few remaining mutually-owned banks in New York City. The plans to sell shares to the public included the creation of a community trust (soon to be named the Independence Community Foundations) that would receive a portion of the bank stock sold as its initial assets. Those assets turned out to be $55 million.

Independence Bank grew as a public company under Fishman’s management, and soon became an acquisition target. Knowing the acquiring bank would not keep the Independence name, Fishman negotiated two vital points that helped seal the fate, in a positive sense, of the future Brooklyn Community Foundation.

First, he negotiated retaining the foundation (still the Independence Community Foundation) as a separate, independent entity. Second, exhibiting his well-known street smarts, he found an opportunity to persuade the acquiring bank, Santander, to provide additional capital to the foundation — some $20 million — in the transaction.

“This was a very powerful baseline for the foundation, which, remember, was at that moment independent,” recalled Bob Catell. “It was moving away from the protective umbrella of an institution to fend for itself with the public … and thanks to a powerful sense of mission, it was bound to succeed.”

Members of Brooklyn Community Foundation Board of Directors: From left, Michael Gillespie, Sarah Williams, Carley Roney, Richard Moore, Rev. Emma Jordan Simpson (Board Member Emeritus), Kathy Darrow, Nicole Gueron, Gabe Schwartz, Amani Martin (former Board Member), Diane Steinberg, Harsha Marti, and Alan Fishman (Board Chair). Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Community Foundation

The board decision a few years later, in 2009, to change the name to the Brooklyn Community Foundation was the subject of heated discussion. Some board members, Charles Hamm among them, felt the allegiance to the name Independence, which gave birth to the foundation, should have been retained. But a change in the needs of Brooklyn’s growing diversity made the board re-examine the mission — and the name.

“Alan Fishman was the key player in expanding the role to a community foundation,” said Catell. Fishman, who had served and chaired many Brooklyn boards, corporate and cultural, including Brooklyn Academy of Music, kept his fingers on the pulse of the changing borough. And it would seem he applied a strong basketball principle that he had learned on the public courts of Brooklyn neighborhoods: The ball keeps moving, so if you want to play, stay with it.

In its first decade as a publicly-supported foundation, the Brooklyn Community Foundation has raised millions for the borough and distributed over $50 million to more than 300 deserving local nonprofits.

Insightfully, the foundation’s current president, Cecilia Clarke, may have the last word on Fishman. “Alan is a study in contrasts,” she told the Eagle. “Clearly, to most of us he is an ambitious, opinionated, sharp-elbowed dealmaker. That is what has contributed to his professional success.”

“But what I have discovered in working closely with him these past seven years,” she added, “is that his true talent lies in something more fundamental: he possesses a strong sense of empathy, generosity and keen personal insight. That’s the secret sauce. He will not settle for the status quo. Though he has ‘made it’ in life, he is neither satisfied nor the least bit complacent … he wants to leave behind a stronger Brooklyn than he was born into.”

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