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The Reinvention of Sandy Weill: 'Simpler Is Better'

The 200-foot super yacht April Fool.
Source: SuperYachtTimes.com
The 200-foot super yacht April Fool.

Former banking chief Sandy Weill isn’t just reinventing his position on big banks. He’s also reinventing his personal life. In both cases, he says, the aim is to "simplify."

On CNBC this morning, Weill — the 79-year-old former CEO of Citigroup — shocked the financial world by calling for a separation of banks and investment banks.

The position took on added weight since Weill helped crusade the combination of banks and investment banks during the 1980s and 1990s and helped create the "financial super-market model."

Yet Weill's stance on banking mirrors the about-face he's taken in his personal life as well. After spending decades building up an empire of trophy properties and toys, he's downsizing.

He sold his penthouse in Manhattan last year for $88 million. He has his prized 200-foot yacht on the market for $59.6 million. A longtime New Yorker, Weill is now spending more and more time in the more casual climes of northern California, with a new vineyard and plans to build a concert hall at Sonoma State University.

“We’re changing our whole life,” he told me this morning. “We’re reinventing our lives. Everyone is getting older, we have kids and grandkids and we’re changing.”

He said that broadly, his aim is to "simplify."

“I think that simpler is better. But my life is still not very simple,” he added with a laugh.

Weill’s lifestyle in many ways tracks the banking cycle that powered him to the top of the financial world and made him one of America’s wealthiest CEOs. As he built Citi into a global banking giant, he also reached ever higher in his spending and badges of success.

He flew around in a Citigroup Global Express jet. He bought one of the most coveted penthouses Manhattan – a 6,744 foot gem atop 15 Central Park West whose residents have included Sting, Denzel Washington, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and hedge-funder Dan Loeb.

When Weill purchased the apartment in 2007, he paid $42.4 million, or $6,288 per square foot, making it the most expensive purchase ever in Manhattan at the time on a per-foot basis. He commissioned a new and larger yacht, upgrading to a 200-foot Feadship called April Fool.

The boat has a massive master stateroom, a Jacuzzi on the fourth-level sundeck and a large outdoor eating lounge. Friends say Weill's favorite feature on the boat is its brick pizza oven, used to make homemade pizzas.

After the financial crisis, Weill started cutting back. In 2009, he agreed to give up use of the corporate jet. He sold his penthouse last year to a Russian family for $88 million. His put April Fool on the market for $69.5 million – though the price has since been reduced to $59.5 million. (You can see pics of the boat here).

It’s not that Weill is short of cash. While his holdings of Citi stock have no doubt taken a beating, he’s still worth millions. He and his wife Joan have become two of the nation’s most prominent philanthropists, supporting everything from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Carnegie Hall to Cornell University’s Medical School and the National Academy Foundation.

Weill also signed the Buffett-Gates Giving Pledge, promising to give away at least half of his wealth. (On CNBC this morning, he said he’s already given away that much).

Weill said that he and his wife are spending more and more time in California. They purchased a 362-acre estate and vineyard in Sonoma County last year for $31 million. He and Joan have given $12 million to Sonoma State – the largest in its history – to help fund a new concert hall at its Green Music center.

He told CNBC this morning that: "We’re building a concert hall on the grounds of Sonoma State University that I think will be like Tanglewood, except with better weather, better wine, better food, and nice young people.

Weill says his focus now is more on philanthropy than personal acquisitions. He said one of the reasons he's enjoying his new California lifestyle is that his New York friends have grown tired of all of his requests for charity.

“Lots of people won’t go out to lunch with me anymore," he said. "It’s one of the reasons we moved part of the year to California. We’ve got a whole bunch of new people out there that don’t know me that well and are still going out to lunch with me."

-By CNBC's Robert Frank
Follow Robert Frank on Twitter:
@robtfrank