Welcome to Michael Milken’s living room: a fire marshal’s nightmare crammed full of people who have money or power, want money or power, or are willing to pay several thousand dollars to be near any and all of the above.
At least 3,000 people are packed into this week’s high-powered salon, which is not actually being held in Milken’s Encino home (too small) but at his longtime haunt, the Beverly Hilton. They have come to hobnob with the junk-bond-king-turned-philanthropist and hear the musings of his marquee friends, people with names such as Murdoch, Pickens, Turner and Broad. (As in Rupert, T. Boone, Ted and Eli.)
Don’t bother asking. It’s sold out.
Not so a decade ago. When the Milken Institute Global Conference debuted in 1998, the world was reeling from the meltdown of Asia’s financial markets, and organizers struggled to fill the seats while fretting that they could attract only financiers and policy wonks. Milken, the 1980s Wall Street wizard whose creative financing revolutionized financial markets but landed him in prison for securities fraud, had regained his freedom just five years before.
Today that’s old news. The event has grown into a confab of Hollywood heavyweights and political and academic stars -- even the occasional Olympian. Milken sets the agenda, and it’s an eclectic one, from the future of K-12 education to the future of prostate cancer treatment to the future of capitalism. (Luckily for the high-net-worth gathering, the conclusion of Monday’s panel of three Nobel laureates in economics was that the free-market system had one.)
Think the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, without the skiing and antiglobalization protesters and with better shopping. (Which is why some have dubbed this Davos West.) Or the Clinton Global Initiative without the presidential invitation and the $15,000 annual membership fee.
There are a few echoes of the past: The four-day conference is held at the same hotel where Milken in the 1980s presided over what became known as the Predators’ Ball -- a gathering of corporate takeover artists who used his high-yield junk bonds to finance their hostile bids. And the predominant attire is still the Wall Street power suit -- dark and tailored, shirt preferably white or light blue (all the better for that hallway interview with Bloomberg Television or face time with CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo).
But the conference is about expanding minds as well as wallets.
From the beginning, said institute spokesman Skip Rimer, the plan was to bring a bunch of smart people from around the world to one place, ban canned speeches and promote a lively debate on topics of global import, be it the high price of obesity, the rebuilding of war-torn economies in the Middle East or the politics of global warming.
Behind and in front of the curtain, Milken -- backed by a staff of 40 researchers, economists, number-crunchers and go-to guys and gals -- plays chief provocateur, referee and congenial host.
“It’s not just brain food, it’s a call to action,” said Rafael Pastor, a former News Corp. executive who runs Vistage International, the world’s leading organization for chief executives. (Milken sits on its board.)
It’s also a pretty good party.
Vistage is one of the conference’s 70 corporate sponsors, some of which pay more than $100,000 to have their brands prominently displayed on booths and printed material, as well as at cocktail parties and other invitation-only events.
Pastor, who invited more than 75 people to the conference, said it was money well spent.
“It goes without saying, it’s very eclectic,” he said. “You turn to one side, and you see Al Gore, and you look around you and you see Rupert Murdoch, and you look somewhere else and you might see David Rubenstein,” a founder of Carlyle Group.
Using the same energy he devoted to transforming Wall Street, Milken, a prostate cancer survivor, is pursuing radical changes in other arenas. He and his family have funneled more than $1 billion in personal wealth and money raised from other sources into medical research and education, said Geoffrey Moore, Milken’s senior advisor.
In his decades on and off Wall Street, Milken has knit a global network of people who feel indebted to him for their fortunes, their careers and in some cases their lives. Those ties are on full display at this week’s gathering. Media mogul and close friend Sumner Redstone announced Tuesday that he was donating $35 million to Milken’s Faster Cures Institute, which is focused on getting drugs to market quicker and more cheaply.
Sen John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, were booked into the same Monday time slot -- on different panels. While he pontificated about developing markets for carbon credits, she discussed how she leverages her family wealth to help build a greener world.
Competing with sessions on hedge funds and global leveraged finance markets was a joint appearance by Hollywood producer-director Sydney Pollack and architect Frank Gehry. Actor Kirk Douglas dropped by to plug his new book.
On Monday, Milken played dinner host, taking the stage with actor Michael J. Fox, tennis star Andre Agassi and CNN founder Turner to discuss their passion for philanthropy.
He praised Fox for transforming a personal tragedy into a multimillion-dollar crusade to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. He asked Agassi why he built a nationally ranked college prep academy in one of Las Vegas’ poorest neighborhoods. He teased Turner about his modest ambitions -- even though his short list includes reversing global warming, reforming the United Nations, nuclear disarmament, empowering women and ending wars.
“If humanity is going to survive another 50 years, we’re going to have to solve a lot of problems in a real hurry,” said Turner, who elicited hearty applause with his suggestion that a first step might be for the U.S. government to send doctors and teachers instead of bombs to Iraq.
In the early days, recalls Rimer, the institute’s communications director, he worked his Rolodex to try to fill empty conference seats. Today one of his biggest headaches is keeping the Beverly Hills Fire Department happy, which means turning people away from a session with former U.S. Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy on China’s political reforms and one with actor Bradley Whitford, of “The West Wing,” on the “bizarre” world of celebrity philanthropy.
Pressure to work influential names, or their issues, onto the schedule has pushed the speaker list to 470. Panels on philanthropy in Vietnam and “Activist Investing” began at 6:30 a.m.
It would be easy to dismiss the conference as a multimillion-dollar promotional tool, or a very expensive ploy for redemption, if it weren’t for the meaty and occasionally combative exchanges among people who have the wealth and influence to change markets and minds.
“This is definitely a value-add,” said Elizabeth Kanna, a business transformation consultant from Sacramento who spoke on a panel on “life after business” with Broad, former Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing and actress Jane Kaczmarek -- Whitford’s wife and co-founder of the Clothes Off Our Back Foundation, which raises money for children’s causes by auctioning off items from celebrities’ wardrobes.
Morgan Smith, a client of Kanna’s and the owner of an Arizona mortgage brokerage, attended his first Milken conference three years ago. At lunch, former Vice President Gore gave a speech on global warming, accompanied by a slide show. It convinced Smith that the heating of the Earth was more than liberal doomsday-ing.
Also in the audience was director Davis Guggenheim, producer of the HBO series “Deadwood,” who ended up collaborating with producer Laurie David on “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Oscar-winning documentary on Gore’s crusade against climate change.
“We saw that six months before the rest of the world,” said Smith, 35, who credits the conference with opening his eyes to realms beyond U.S. interest rates and housing starts. “I think the Milken conference really started that ball rolling.”