The life and death of a master of the universe

How the suicide of a Blackstone unit CEO shows the difficulties of doing well and doing good.

Bruce Wrobel's body was found by a friend on Dec. 10, 2013, at about 1 a.m. in a Mercedes-Benz CLK550. Police called to the West 20th Street scene—a quiet, tree-lined stretch of townhouses in Manhattan's affluent Chelsea neighborhood—discovered suicide notes to family and friends. The New York City medical examiner concluded the 56-year-old poisoned himself inside the parked car with carbon monoxide by mixing sulfuric acid and other toxic chemicals.

Colleagues and friends were shocked and heartbroken. Why would Wrobel, a visionary businessman who succeeded through a forceful blend of hard work and passion, kill himself at the peak of his career?

As a Blackstone Group executive and investor, Wrobel turned grandiose ideas—say, damming the Nile River to power up Uganda's economy with cheap, clean electricity—into reality. One such idea was Herakles Farms, a sustainable palm oil plantation he founded in 2008 on hundreds of acres in Ghana and Cameroon. He promised it would bring much-needed economic development to desperately poor regions of West Africa. That September, a beaming Wrobel told a star-studded Manhattan gala he would raise hundreds of millions of dollars for a new charity to fund community programs in the decades ahead. His efforts won him the ringing endorsement of Bill Clinton and were even said to have led to nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But none of that success prepared him for a series of professional crises. Chief among them: Wrobel became the target of aggressive campaigns by Greenpeace and other activists that painted him as a greedy Wall Streeter profiting off environmental and social destruction. And although Wrobel's accomplishments highlight the potential of enlightened capitalism to forge growth and better the lives of others, the issues that apparently contributed to his death show just how difficult it can be for even well-meaning people to navigate complex economic, social and political issues.

"What makes the whole thing sad is that in some ways he's emblematic of an emerging type of business person who understands that with power and wealth comes responsibility," said Michael Santoro, an expert on business ethics at Rutgers Business School. "He was a model of what we want business people to be like. But make no mistake about it—the kind of criticism [he was facing] is inevitable when we live in a world where we're expecting business to solve the problems that governments are supposed to."

To follow Bruce Wrobel’s journey, click on the right arrow.

From the South Side of Chicago to MIT

Wrobel was born in July 1957 and grew up with three siblings on the South Side of Chicago. His father worked six days a week as a truck driver and his mother had a local government job as director of Evergreen Park's Office of Citizens' Services. Wrobel attended public schools and left Illinois after graduating from Evergreen Park High School to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At MIT, Wrobel made the most of his time outside the classroom. A fun-loving Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brother who studied economics and management, he threw raucous parties to benefit charities and ran an informal delicatessen that combined sandwiches and liar's poker. With his large frame and big persona, Wrobel led the re-establishment of MIT's varsity football team after decades of inactivity—he was the quarterback.

In 1980, Wrobel graduated from MIT and co-founded Mitex, a hydroelectric power company that developed smaller projects in the U.S. After starting the firm using credit cards and subsisting on a diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Wrobel helped grow Mitex into a substantial business before selling it in 1986 to Sithe Energies, where he assumed the role of executive vice president in charge of business development and project finance.

Over the next 13 years, Wrobel worked at Sithe, driving the creation of larger power projects globally, including the Philippines' San Roque Dam and New York state's Independence Station plant. And then in 1999, Wrobel had what he called a "life-changing" visit to Africa. The experience would set the course for the executive's remaining years.

Bruce Wrobel (right) shakes hands with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete (left) in September 2011 as members of the Blackstone Group and Sithe Global team look on.
Source: Government of Tanzania.
Bruce Wrobel (right) shakes hands with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete (left) in September 2011 as members of the Blackstone Group and Sithe Global team look on.

Help for Africa

"On that trip, I witnessed firsthand the extreme poverty caused in part by the serious conflicts in West Africa at the time," Wrobel wrote in a September 2012 letter. "In the wake of this trip, I gathered some of the brightest and most idealistic managers and engineers I had worked with over my career, and together we made a commitment to the identification and development of specific opportunities designed to generate sustainable economic growth."

Wrobel would soon establish a series of large African-focused businesses that attempted to mix profits with social gain. The most significant was Sithe Global Power, a recasting of the former Sithe Energies. Sithe Global was formed with money from Reservoir Capital Group and is now 99 percent Blackstone-owned.

Wrobel's signature project as CEO of Sithe was the Bujagali hydroelectric project in Uganda. For years, the country's economic development was crippled by a lack of widespread, reliable electricity and a dependence on trucked-in oil. The $900 million, 250-megawatt facility on the Nile River was funded by Sithe and public-sector partners, and launched commercially in August 2012. The dam boosted economic growth by nearly doubling the country's electricity capacity and by providing renewable power at a price two-thirds lower than before, according to Sithe materials. Wrobel helped put together more than $20 million in social program funding to accompany the project, including investments in education, health, environmental resources and business development.

Seacom was Wrobel's second major success in Africa. Wrobel and Brian Herlihy co-founded the company in 2006 and Seacom built and launched Africa's first broadband submarine cable system in 2009. The $600 million project connected cables to Europe and South Asia, bringing fast Internet to South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. (Service was later extended to other African countries.)

The company's impact was huge. The number of Kenyan Internet users, for example, more than doubled to 8.6 million in less than two years. Wrobel claimed Seacom offered lower prices to "ensure its affordability to as broad a spectrum of the population as possible." He also managed to raise much of the equity for the project from African sources, and so kept the profits in the local community.

All this work led to Wrobel being honored in 2009 as International Business Leader of the Year by Africa Investor. It was just one of many awards Wrobel received for his projects. "Those two projects changed the lives of a lot of people in Africa for the better," said David Foley, CEO of Blackstone Energy Partners and a senior managing director in the firm's private equity group. "Bruce wasn't one to be daunted by a challenge and always looked for both a good return on capital and benefits for the local community."

Herakles Farms sign in Cameroon.
Source: Greenpeace
Herakles Farms sign in Cameroon.

The palm oil play

Wrobel's next attempt to blend business and philanthropy, however, wouldn't end with honors. He started Herakles Farms by purchasing property in Ghana and Cameroon from Sithe. After a smaller pilot program in Ghana, he secured a 99-year lease for up to 280 square miles from the Cameroonian government and hatched an ambitious plan to turn large swaths of land into palm oil tree plantations.

But while palm oil has long been used for cooking in many countries—and is increasingly used as an alternative to trans fats in the U.S.—it has a bad reputation among many environmentalists. That's because the fruit-bearing trees that produce the oil are typically part of rain forests in Indonesia and Malaysia, and critics argue that cutting down of rain forests contributes to global warming and can cause the destruction of local human and wildlife habitats.

To head off critics, Wrobel vowed that Herakles would produce palm oil "in an economically and environmentally sustainable way through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders," according to its website. The company, independent from Sithe and Blackstone, signed up to follow international standards and assessed the impact on local villages and forests. In addition to reducing Cameroon's dependence on imports, the plantations would deliver a range of benefits, including "jobs, housing, health clinics, clean water and schools, while safeguarding the incredible biodiversity of this part of the world," Wrobel said in June 2011.

Wrobel also created the charity All for Africa alongside Herakles with financial support from Sithe and Seacom. Its first major event, in September 2008, was a 1,200 person, celebrity-filled affair that included the presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone. The evening launched the Palm Out Poverty Campaign, which aimed to plant 1 million palm trees over 17,000 acres of land in various African countries. Those trees, All for Africa said, would generate an estimated $700 million to fund community programs over three decades as the plants matured and locals sold the oil they yielded. Clinton, actor Jeffrey Wright and musicians John Legend and Questlove all lent their support to the efforts.

#StopHerakles

Despite all the support and good intentions, Herakles' operations in Cameroon were soon under attack.The German group SAVE Wildlife Conservation Fund gathered 18,000 signatures against the farm in July 2011 and the protest quickly gathered momentum. In September 2011, Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, published a critical analysis of the project. Other academics signed on and Greenpeace teamed with the liberal think tank Oakland Institute to launch a major campaign against Wrobel, calling Herakles' Cameroon operation a "showcase in bad palm oil production."

The two groups released a 15-page report in September 2012, charging Herakles with "massive deforestation" and of using methods that were "destructive of livelihoods for thousands of Cameroonians" through their "illegal project." They also released a documentary, "The Herakles Debacle."

Villagers Visit Oil Palm Plantation in Cameroon.
Source: Greenpeace
Villagers Visit Oil Palm Plantation in Cameroon.

Other activists piled on and their action went viral, with a mock website (Herakles Harms), a hashtag on Twitter (#StopHerakles), and a Facebook "cause" page ("Stop Herakles Deforestation"). An EarthAction website listed the addresses, phone numbers and emails for Wrobel and All for Africa, causing a flood of incoming personal negative messages.

Wrobel worked aggressively to rebut the accusations, including a 10-page open letter that responded directly to the Greenpeace-Oakland study's claims. "The report is a blatant effort to manipulate the reader with its use of suggestive photos and selective information. It is without a doubt one of the most unprofessional and misleading studies of this type I have encountered in my 30+ year career," Wrobel wrote.

Not only did the activists dramatically exaggerate the local opposition to the project and its negative impacts, Wrobel said, but he was especially hurt that the accusations took aim at two of his most proudly held ideals. "Throughout my entire life," he wrote, "I have considered myself to be an environmentalist and an activist for the poor."

The attacks quickly took a toll. "It was relentless and very personal. He took it very personally," lifelong friend and former colleague Mike Cella told CNBC.com. They also made it hard for Wrobel to raise money to keep the project going. "That looked like it was becoming a disaster for him," said Cella. "The farms had a voracious appetite for capital and with attacks by Greenpeace and others, it created problems."

Source: Greenpeace.org

A 'perfect storm' of problems

Herakles wasn't Wrobel's only fight. At the same time, another African venture, a massive alumina project in Guinea, faced significant challenges that even Wrobel couldn't surmount—another stark example of the huge risks of trying to forge large projects in developing nations.

Founded in 2000, Global Alumina Products was actually Wrobel's first major project in Africa. Wrobel and his partners planned to build a $5 billion alumina production plant to harvest the West African country's vast bauxite reserves (made from bauxite, alumina is then smelted into the metal aluminum). Wrobel personally negotiated with the president at the time, Lansana Conte, persuading him to approve a socially responsible project while sitting under a centuries-old mango tree in the garden of his coup-scarred palace. By 2004, Wrobel took the company public on the Toronto Stock Exchange and spending ramped up.

But the company hit trouble in 2008 following the global financial crisis and a military coup in Guinea. Co-investor BHP Billiton cut back on its aluminum business and Global Alumina started to run out of money, according to former executive Cella. Wrobel fought hard to save the project—potentially a major economic boon for the impoverished countryand it started to turn around again in 2010 after the election of Alpha Conde as president.

Ultimately though, he lost control. Global Alumina and BHP sold their stakes to the project's two other investors, Dubai Aluminum and Mubadala in July 2013 in an effort to keep the unfinished endeavor alive after the four had already spent $800 million.

The crises at Herakles and Global Alumina took substantial effort to manage, leading Wrobel to break his agreement with Sithe to spend at least half his time focused on the company as chairman and CEO, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Blackstone and Sithe announced in July 2013 that Wrobel was retiring from the company and being replaced as CEO by Sithe co-founder Martin Rosenberg.

"It was kind of a perfect storm—a triple whammy—that three of his businesses were struggling," said Mitchell Dong, a longtime friend and sometime business partner. "A developer has big ups and downs all the time ... but he had three downs simultaneously. It weighed on him."

Dong said Wrobel grew depressed and as a result was briefly hospitalized in 2013. Dong declined to comment on what happened next, but said that "things went down from there."

The professional stress appears to have bled into Wrobel's personal finances. Wrobel sold three residential condos in Brooklyn's stylish Dumbo neighborhood between December 2012 and June 2013, according to city records. All three were in the luxury Clocktower building: Two sold for $1.36 million, a third fetched $3.05 million. Following the third and final apartment sale, Wrobel moved in with Dong in Chelsea, where he lived until his death.

The extent of Wrobel's financial problems were unclear, but the female friend who found him in the parked car last December told police of his depression and financial stress.

Oil palm nursery in Cameroon.
Photo: Jan-Joseph Stok | Greenpeace
Oil palm nursery in Cameroon.

Helping others but not himself

It was a tough spot for a man who friends said often helped others out financially. Wrobel doted on his two teenage children and provided a seemingly endless stream of support to a wide circle of friends and associates, from romantic introductions to handing out cash to helping people find jobs—as fondly recounted by more than 70 people in a 102-page memorial book compiled within days of his death.

Two accounts in the book describe how Wrobel once lent a cab driver $100,000 to pay off a loan shark who had threatened the man's family—when he couldn't pay Wrobel back, Wrobel essentially hired him as his personal chauffeur.

Another entry told of Wrobel getting a 20-person line moving at an airport in Cameroon by paying the taxes for someone who didn't have the cash—and then giving the person pocket money.

"He was the most generous person I have ever met in every way," a friend wrote in Wrobel's memorial book.

Ironically, Wrobel had trouble getting help for himself. "He was a good man, and I was proud to have him as a son ... and as a friend," Wrobel's mother, Virginia, said haltingly in a recent telephone interview. "He was always ready to jump in and help everyone else, ... but he couldn't ask for it for himself. That kind of made it hard."

His 81-year-old mother, who still lives in Evergreen Park, added that her son "adored" his children and spoke constantly of his pride in them.

The children's mother and Wrobel's ex-wife, actress and singer Marlo Marron, remained friends with her ex-husband after the divorce. Marron, who also did work with All for Africa, declined to be interviewed.

Bruce Wrobel and Mitchell Dong.
Courtesy: The Wrobel family.
Bruce Wrobel and Mitchell Dong.

Herakles today

Six months after Wrobel's death, the status of Herakles Farms is unclear. No additions to the news section of its website have been made since May 2013. Numerous messages to the emails listed on the site and other employees were not returned. The only number listed, to a field office in Cameroon, was out of service. An operator for 277 Park Ave., the company's former New York City headquarters, said Herakles left the building in July 2013.

Herakles had agreed to decrease the size of its palm oil farms with the Cameroonian government last year following a suspension of activities. All for Africa was also shut down in 2013, according to Noella Coursaris, whose Georges Malaika Foundation was one of the group's first grantees.

Greenpeace said its efforts did not prompt any concessions. "At no point yet have any social or environmental improvements come in response to our campaign," said Amy Moas, a senior forest campaigner with the group.

Activists aren't slowing down because of silence from Herakles. Greenpeace released another report on May 27 criticizing what it called an "illegal timber trade" by the company. "Local communities are still seeing their land threatened and threats to wildlife and the forest continue in the Herakles name," Moas said in a recent email. "So, yes the Greenpeace campaign continues."

The activists also stand by their efforts against Wrobel, while also expressing sympathies for his family. "Of course we have done deep introspection and we say with clarity, we have not been aggressive," Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, said in an interview. "We have been putting up a good struggle against some very bad plans."

Bruce Wrobel in Guinea.
Courtesy: The Wrobel family.
Bruce Wrobel in Guinea.

The Wrobel legacy

In the end, Wrobel's last experiences in Africa shine a light on the many conflicts that arise when idealistic capitalism collides with equally idealistic environmental and social advocates. "It's common in this type of situation to see a clash of different interests and passions on what's right for local communities. It can be a combustible mixture," said Bennett Freeman, an expert on corporate social responsibility and senior vice president of sustainability research and policy at Calvert Investments. "For someone who sees themselves in the change-the-world business, these kinds of criticisms can be intensely felt."

It also illustrates how extremely successful entrepreneurs—even masters of the universe—can appear to lose all hope when their ideals slam into reality. Wrobel believed he could overcome any professional challenge, and his many successes suggested he could be an elite member of a new breed of entrepreneur able to create positive change against long odds in even the poorest locales. When he fell, he fell hard.

As Seacom co-founder Herlihy—and many others—recognized, the fuel for Wroebel's professional drive was a belief in his ability and others' to make a difference.

"It was just pure passion—people couldn't say no to him," said Herlihy. "It was always about 'how are we creating market efficiencies and bettering off the market.' If it weren't, he would've just built power plants in New York or wherever. He didn't need to make the money. … He didn't need to take the risk."

Before his depression, friends and colleagues spoke of being "Wrobelized," a term for when Wrobel would persuade them to sign up for a project through the sheer power of his infectious enthusiasm, especially for work with a social byproduct. Part of his self-image, those close to Wrobel say, was the support he provided to all those who did join him.

"He was always going out of his way to help people, whether it was giving them financial support or advice or ideas or connecting people," longtime friend Dong said. "When his businesses were going south, he had to spend his attention on keeping them afloat. So he had less time and less financial resources to support people. I think that weighed on him."

Looking back, friends remain in awe. "From a very basic human level, he was kind of superhuman," said Cella. "We should all be very, very grateful that the embodiment of all that brain power, confidence and guts were in a vessel that really and truly and very deeply wanted to improve the lives of as many people as he could."

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