“If there is one thing that I learned from 12 years in government,“it's that you can effect change, pull people together and face big societal problems.”: Michael Bloomberg.

“If there is one thing that I learned from 12 years in government,“it's that you can effect change, pull people together and face big societal problems.”: Michael Bloomberg. Photo: AP

On a sweltering Saturday in June in Istanbul's old city, Michael R. Bloomberg, power-dressed in a dark blue suit, monogrammed white shirt and cuff links, sat down to a late-morning breakfast with local antismoking activists on a rooftop overlooking the glittering Sea of Marmara.

The group, which included Turkish doctors and public health officials, had gathered to celebrate the surprising success of a campaign to persuade Turks, notorious for their love of tobacco, to smoke fewer cigarettes. It was a campaign formulated and funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable foundation of Mr Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York.

Mr Bloomberg was in an expansive mood, holding forth on Istanbul's antiquities and dropping the names of Turkish big shots he has known: Muhtar Kent, the chief executive of Coca-Cola, and Ahmet Ertegun, the late rock 'n' roll magnate. But what Mr Bloomberg really wanted to talk about was the success of his antismoking program in Turkey, an effort that has drawn the passionate support of his newest Turkish pal, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former prime minister and the country's just-elected president.

Setting the benchmark: Bill Gates's foundation donated $US3.3 billion last year.

Setting the benchmark: Bill Gates's foundation donated $US3.3 billion last year.

"Turkey is a great example, and it can be translated to other countries," Mr Bloomberg told his breakfast companions. And who knows, he joked, his philanthropy may even win him a Nobel Prize.

There were some cautious titters from the audience. Was Mr Bloomberg kidding — or was he issuing a statement of intent?

It's hard to tell. Transforming Walter Mitty fantasy into Michael Bloomberg reality has been his career path. A middle-class boy from Massachussetts becomes a millionaire equity trader on Wall Street who turns into a profane billionaire media titan who finally evolves into a reform-driven, three-term mayor.

Now the man who flirted with a presidential run has one last aspiration: mayor of the world.

Mr Bloomberg, 72, has vowed to give away his $US32.8 billion ($35.3 billion) fortune before he dies. In doing so, he hopes to sharply reduce high smoking rates in Turkey, Indonesia and other countries; bring down obesity levels in Mexico; reduce traffic in Rio de Janeiro (and Istanbul); improve road safety in India and Kenya; prevent deaths at childbirth to mothers in Tanzania; and organise cities worldwide to become more environmentally friendly and efficient in delivering services.

His vehicle to achieve all of this is Bloomberg Philanthropies, a foundation that he started in 2006 and that now employs about 30 people with programs in 95 countries.

Of course, a billionaire with a charity foundation and good intentions is no news flash — see Bill Gates, Warren E. Buffett and many other titans who have promised to dispense with their fortunes.

Paul G. Schervish, the director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, says that at this exalted level of billionaire giving, there is often a tension between the ambition to do lasting good and the charge of ego that fires it.

But Mr Bloomberg has a unique perspective, even among billionaire philanthropists, Mr Schervish said. As both an entrepreneur and the guy who served at the top of government bureaucracies, he grasps better than most how to balance risk with practicalities when he doles out his cash.

To that end, Mr Bloomberg says he focuses his giving in countries where there is broad national support for his program — be it to curb cigarette smoking in Turkey or sugared drinks in Mexico. If he gets it right, Mr Schervish said, "he has a chance to make a little bit of history."

Mr Bloomberg, who left public office just eight months ago, has started increasing his donations: Last year, he gave away $US452 million, his highest annual figure to date. "What else am I going to do with it," he said. "My joke is that I want to bounce the cheque to the undertaker."

Mr Bloomberg has often offered up this bromide, but it actually oversimplifies what experts say may be the hardest part of accumulating extreme wealth: how to give it all away. In fact, he has been giving at a slower pace than some other wealthy philanthropists.

His wealth, meanwhile, keeps expanding. According to Forbes, Mr Bloomberg's net worth grew by $US6 billion last year, making him the world's 16th-richest person.

So he'd better start writing the cheques fast. At his current rate, if he were to live to the ripe old age of 102, as his mother, Charlotte, did, he would give away just half of his current fortune.

'You Can Effect Change'

After his breakfast with the anti-tobacco activists, Mr Bloomberg kicked back on a huge two-story yacht procured by staff members to take him from his hotel on the Bosporus to the next event on his schedule: commencement remarks to be delivered at Koc University, an elite institution founded by the billionaire Rahmi Koc, his friend and fellow alumnus from Johns Hopkins University.

Mr Bloomberg had removed his jacket, revealing his still-slim waistline. As he explained how he hoped to make a difference by getting people to eat and smoke less, he tilted his already quite tan face in the direction of the hot Turkish sun.

Life is good, he had to admit.

"I mean if I am not happy, I should see a shrink," he said with a short laugh.

(Life is even better when you can donate millions of dollars to tackle Istanbul's traffic woes and then dodge these same maladies by commuting to most of your meetings by boat.)

Since leaving City Hall for good last December, Mr Bloomberg has split his time between his foundation and Bloomberg L.P., his media empire. His work for the two enterprises often overlaps. During his trip to Turkey, he tended faithfully to the Bloomberg business brand at a flashy conference and meetings with clients.

Mr Bloomberg's modus operandi as a giver is not all that different from his management of his company or of New York City: Embrace big, if controversial, ideas and rely on a trusted cadre of advisers to get the job done. (Bloomberg Philanthropies is run by Patricia E. Harris, who served as a deputy mayor for more than a decade and who inspired his early steps as a committed philanthropist.)

Two of his primary philanthropic ambitions — reducing smoking and the consumption of sugary drinks worldwide — come directly from efforts he made as mayor. Taken together, they distill what New Yorkers have come to see as the best and worst in the man.

His decision to ban smoking in restaurants, bars and other public places is now accepted by one and all, including the tobacco industry.

When it came to the ban on large-size sugary drinks, however, critics piled on. They saw it as an example of nanny-state overreach, not to mention Mr Bloomberg's tendency to assume an authoritarian attitude — and then bully his way through to the end with clout and cash. The edict was thrown out by New York State's highest court in June.

Mr Bloomberg makes no apologies.

"If there is one thing that I learned from 12 years in government," he said, "is that you can effect change, pull people together and face big societal problems."

In discussing Mr Bloomberg's post-mayoral future, his top aides cite time and again the example of former President Bill Clinton and the extent to which his foundation has served as a springboard for continued power, relevance and reputational enhancement.

Still, the ever-competitive Bloomberg crowd knows that it has one thing that Mr Clinton's boundless political skills cannot match: almost $33 billion and a company that, according to the data consultant Burton-Taylor, spit out $US2.7 billion in profit last year.

Mr Bloomberg, who owns an 88 per cent stake in Bloomberg L.P. did not neglect its corporate imperatives during his two-day visit to Istanbul. Turkey, with its profitable banks and growing capital markets, is one of the company's more dynamic growth areas. Sales of Bloomberg terminals — which present a mix of news and data to financiers — have doubled there since 2009.

So he headlined a company conference that pushed Istanbul as a regional financial center — hosting a lunch for top clients, local billionaires and Turkey's finance minister. He also sat for an interview on Bloomberg TV.

The future belongs to cities, Mr Bloomberg said to a packed hall of Turkish bankers as he described his efforts to attack societal ills like smoking, obesity and traffic deaths.

Of course, Mr Bloomberg pushing Bloomberg on Bloomberg TV at a Bloomberg conference, with Bloomberg terminals everywhere, represents the very essence of the Bloomberg model.

It is a model that has made him one of the richest men in the world, but not one likely to win him the Nobel. And that is why his bid to change habits around the world is such an important component of his global game plan.

A Thinner Cloud of Smoke

During his visit to Turkey, Mr Bloomberg took his private jet to visit Mr Erdogan's ancestral home on the Black Sea coast. The two men spent an hour hashing out antismoking strategies and chewing over developments in the Middle East.

They make an odd couple.

A socially liberal Jewish billionaire, Mr Bloomberg epitomizes the global investing elite that Mr Erdogan, a conservative Islamist, has blamed for fomenting financial instability in Turkey — most notoriously after the protests against his government in Gezi Park in May 2013. Mr Erdogan's subsequent crackdown on the protesters drew criticism at home and abroad.

But the two men do share one conviction: that cigarette smoking is not just a public health issue, but a moral one as well. They both identify the tobacco companies as the main malefactor.

"The sick thing is that these companies are selling to those who are less fortunate," Mr Bloomberg said. "I really think that manufacturing a product that you know is killing people should be against the law and that you should prosecute those who do it. It's murder like anything else."

Mr Erdogan's rhetoric can be just as strong. In a speech in late 2007, he gave a boost to antismoking efforts by likening the selling of cigarettes to terrorism. "His speech did more than any antismoking advocate could have done," said Elif Dagli, a doctor and antismoking activist who has received funding from Mr Bloomberg.

This address established Mr Erdogan as perhaps the hardest-line antismoking head of state around. His associates tell stories of him grabbing cigarette packages from cabinet colleagues, scribbling the date on the pack and then exhorting the stunned smoker to quit from that day on.

Mr Bloomberg last lit up in 1982, and he considers the de-romanticizing of cigarette smoking in New York as his crowning achievement. Just 15 per cent of adults in his city now describe themselves as regular smokers — one of the lowest big-city rates and lower than the 22 per cent who identified as smokers when he took office.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is aiming to start antismoking programs in 15 of the world's heaviest-smoking countries — including Indonesia, Russia, China and India — by providing grants to activists. The foundation has pledged $600 million to date.

Given the scale of the problem, this is not a huge amount. But, strategically allocated, it has had successes. In Turkey, Mr Bloomberg's antismoking efforts, led by Kelly Henning, a top public health official from Mr Bloomberg's days at City Hall, started in November 2007 — just before Mr Erdogan's anti-tobacco speech. Doctors, academics and health officials — most of whom had spent decades warning of the dangers of smoking — were identified and funded. Some of the experts had ties to sympathetic officials in the health ministry who, in turn, had Mr Erdogan's ear. Soon, papers and proposals were circulating that advocated banning cigarettes in public areas and increasing taxes to stem consumption.

Nazmi Bilir, a doctor and antismoking activist who worked on several studies funded by Mr Bloomberg, said Mr Erdogan and his health advisers were quick to respond. "This was an important issue for the prime minister," Mr Bilir said.

Mr Erdogan, then at the height of his political power, was able to push through tough laws in 2009 that led to New York City-style bans on smoking in public places, enhanced warnings on cigarette packages and increased prices via higher taxes.

According to a World Health Organisation report published last year, the overall smoking rate in Turkey decreased to 27 per cent in 2012 from 32 per cent in 2008, with the male rate dropping to 41 per cent from 48 per cent.

The statistics don't convey the enormity of the change. Historically, Turks have been fanatic smokers, with a cultural acceptance so unquestioned that in the mid-1990s, surveys showed that 43 per cent of doctors and 34 per cent of professional athletes lit up regularly.

This largely reflects an embrace of Western mores in the years after World War II. Smoking a Marlboro came to signal not just a sense of cool but also a more profound sense of being European.

Now the cloud of smoke that just a few years ago filled taxis, restaurants, beer halls, offices and even the ferry boats that cross the Bosporus has visibly dissipated.

The effect, to a small degree, can be seen on the bottom line of Philip Morris International, the global cigarette giant, which controls 45 per cent of the Turkish cigarette market. The company, which gets 10 per cent of its revenue from Turkey, reported a 5 per cent decrease in the volume of cigarettes sold in 2013.

Driving this result, beyond persistent weakness in Europe, were sharp volume declines in Russia, the Philippines and Turkey, where a 7.6 per cent fall in cigarettes sold represented one of the company's sharper declines.

Still, old habits die hard.

On an early-morning ferry commute, two Turkish men sipped tea and puffed on cigarettes in perfect contentment, ignoring the bright red no-smoking sign in front of them and the threat of a 75 lira fine (about $US34).

"It's a terrible thing to smoke as much as I do — and I agree with what the prime minister says about not smoking," said one of them, a 21-year-old shop apprentice. He said he smoked a pack of Marlboros a day.

But, he continued with a guilty smile, it's a beautiful day on the Bosporus, his tea is steaming hot and no one has told him to his face that he can't enjoy his morning puff.

Battle of the Billionaires

Mr Bloomberg's boat ride up the Bosporus was coming to an end, and, ever the management geek, he was contemplating how to give away his billions most effectively and efficiently.

Like many self-made billionaires, he likes to benchmark himself against those he sees as his competitive peers.

So Mr Clinton's name came up, as did those of the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations and, of course, Mr Gates, with whom Mr Bloomberg has joined forces on several charitable initiatives.

Mr Bloomberg was quick to praise the generosity of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It gave away $US3.6 billion last year; Mr Bloomberg's foundation has given away less — $US3.3 billion — in total donations to date. But he is not a fan of the Gates foundation bureaucracy. The foundation employs 1,200 people, compared with the 30 or so who work for Mr Bloomberg's charity.

One rival billionaire, who asked not to be identified because he did not like to discuss publicly the charity efforts of his peers, wondered why Mr Bloomberg was not making larger contributions. "You want to meet your unique capabilities," this person said. "Giving away $US2 billion in one shot — now that would meet Mike's capabilities."

Mr Schervish of Boston College suggested that Mr Bloomberg needed to make some changes. "The question is, how will he do this in his lifetime?" he said. "I think he will need a more elaborate administrative organisation."

Mr Bloomberg does not seem pressed, though, and says he has no immediate plans to hire large numbers of staff members. In fact, the financier in him smiles at the fact that the $US7 million his foundation has spent against smoking in Turkey has produced such an impressive return.

He says he has also considered matching grants, or supporting causes championed by other foundations (as he has done with the Gates Foundation's bid to eradicate polio) as a way to increase his giving.

That said, he agrees that the issue is a vexing one — whether for him, Mr Gates or the ever-growing line of billionaires in giving-it-all-away mode.

But don't underestimate the power of Mr Bloomberg's notorious impatience to speed things up. He told a story of becoming stuck earlier this year behind someone on a downward escalator at Bloomberg headquarters. For most people, this would not be a memorable moment. But for Mr Bloomberg, it was a high crime.

"I don't have anything in common with people who stand on escalators," he said with a sad shake of his head. "I always walk around them — why waste time? You have eternity to rest when you die."

The New York Times