When Princeton announced a $100 million gift from Gerhard R. (Gerry) Andlinger ’52 on July 1, Andlinger was away in Europe. That was no coincidence – Andlinger, the board chairman of the private investment firm he founded, Andlinger & Co., describes himself as “a pretty private person” who once hired a public relations firm to keep his company out of the news. In an interview with PAW, Andlinger discussed how he came to Princeton from Austria and why he chose to focus his gift on research into climate change and alternative energy sources.  

Regarding your recent gift: Why Princeton?

First of all, the way I came to Princeton – the circumstances were such that my coming to Princeton and my education completely changed the course of my life. And therefore I am eternally grateful to Princeton and whenever I see an opportunity to make a contribution, I do.

Would you talk about how you came to Princeton?

In 1948 I was a junior in high school in Austria, and the New York Herald-Tribune ran an essay contest in every country in Europe; the title was “The World I Want.” A girl and a boy from every country were chosen based on this essay for a three-month trip to the United States. During the trip, one of the families I stayed with showed me Princeton University and, needless to say, as a 17-year-old kid who went through the war in Europe, I was overwhelmed by Princeton and I made up my mind that’s where I wanted to go to school. So I went back to Austria, finished high school, and applied to Princeton. And the happiest day of my life was when I got the letter that started off, “We’re happy to inform you …” So I got a scholarship and offer of a job, and so I came to Princeton.

What was the job?

I actually had an average of three jobs at any one time. I lived in Dial Lodge (which no longer exists) and was the house man, to make sure everything was locked up and the guys didn’t steal the ice cream out of the refrigerator at night. I translated war diaries of a German general for a professor in German history; I tutored; I worked at a place called the Tax Institute in Princeton – because other than the fare coming over, I never received any money from home.

Your father had died when you were 8?

Yes, that’s correct.

It’s been reported that you were living in a section of the city occupied by American soldiers, and that you would learn English by reading English-language magazines that they had with them.

That’s true. It was really Life magazine that inspired me, and the ads in Life magazine. And I listened to the Armed Forces Radio Network – I listened to the news and the music, which drove my mother up the wall. But that’s how I developed an early fluency in English.

How do you look back on your time at Princeton?

I got my degree in two years, and on top of that one of the subjects that I chose to study was Arabic, which was nearly all-consuming. So taking the junior year while making up the sophomore courses, plus working, plus taking Arabic – I spent I would say the greater part of my time working at Princeton. I had a very abbreviated social life. … If I was short on anything, I was short on having fun.

You majored in economics and minored in Arabic. What led you to that combination?

The truth is that when I arrived at Princeton and had to register, I asked a couple of guys at the club who got paid the most when they graduated. Oh, they said, people that joined Aramco – the Arabian-American Oil Co. But you had to either be a petroleum engineer or be able to speak Arabic. As I wasn’t going to be a petroleum engineer, it was Arabic that I studied. Of course by the time I got close to graduation, I realized that was probably not my best career  choice. I applied to the Harvard Business School and got another scholarship, then got my MBA at Harvard.

How did you decide which area of research to support with your gift?

First, it was some of my business experience in the area of global warming, where five years ago I was the largest investor in a company, AgCert, that in effect was set up to produce greenhouse-gas offsets in South America. It was a great experience, but financially was rather not rewarding. I came away from that with the conviction that whatever we do in the United States, the last thing in the world we should do is to copy what Europe did under the Kyoto agreement. So I had been looking for an opportunity to, in effect, put my oar in the water in the direction of our coming up with laws that are very different from those of the Kyoto agreement.

I would say, second of all, that this is an area that I am very passionate about personally. … And I would say third, when I think of the assets that Princeton has and the work that Princeton does – the research that Princeton does in that area – it is absolutely staggering. I had no idea how involved Princeton already was in many of the aspects of global warming and climate change. So you put all three of those together, and it’s a pretty powerful motivation.

I’ve neglected to mention a rather obvious fourth aspect: For a long time, I had planned to make a significant gift, a legacy kind of a gift to the University. And when this opportunity came up, it was sort of a natural meeting of some of my deepest desires and the ability to do it.

How did you decide on a $100 million gift, when one of $102 million would have been Princeton’s largest?

The truth is, when Peter Wendell [’72, a Princeton trustee who worked with Andlinger on the gift] suggested I think about it (the total amount of the gift], I told him my feeling was that was Mickey Mouse.

What are your personal goals for the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment?

I hope to be not only part of the advisory committee, but to chair the advisory committee to the Andlinger Center. One of my goals is to be able to make a personal contribution and to take advantage of my experience in terms of the direction and in terms of the kinds of projects that should be emphasized or de-emphasized. I’ve always been fascinated by technology, and I feel comfortable in the area of technology, so that I hope to be able to make a contribution in that way.

[Engineering school] Dean Vincent Poor [*77] said that public policy, with the involvement of the Woodrow Wilson School, also would be a priority of the new center. Is that important to you as well?

Oh, absolutely. Our policy in this country has to be different from what the Kyoto agreement ended up being. My focus … is to try to avoid mistakes in the public-policy area. That is a significant aspect of what I hope the center, together with the Woodrow Wilson School, will do. The research area is clear – the research area in my opinion is the basis for solving what I consider the largest problem that mankind has. And not only solve the problem, but at the same time provide an enormous opportunity for American business to be in the front row.

What role can private business play in meeting the challenge of global warming?

Well, the first thing that needs to be done is to stop being afraid of the consequences of global warming and to stop talking about the potentially catastrophic consequences of not doing something, and  [instead] to focus on solutions. … And when American business begins to focus on what we can do – what business can do – I think that based on the research, I see whole new industries being created that don’t exist today.

Your previous gifts to Princeton have been in the area of social sciences and the humanities, while this gift is in the sciences and public policy. Is there a common denominator?

They all represent deep interests and convictions of mine. The first thing I did was donate a professorship in the field of sociology and in the area of the relevancy of religion in today’s world, particularly the world of religion in the United States.

The second one is the Center for the Humanities, which covers a wide range of things. I have a series of specific interests in that area. One is the fact that, in general, Americans are insufficiently educated in foreign languages. I was delighted to see the language lab, which has the latest audio-educational tools in the center. But humanities in general – and I gave a talk at the dedication – is an area where, if we knew more about it, we’d have a much better understanding of other people, other societies, other religions particularly. Some of the present conflicts, particularly the conflicts in the Islamic world that we’re seeing now – if we understood Islam better, I think we’d have a different approach and a different point of view as to how to tackle that area.

Could you discuss your general lines of business? Didn’t you start with leveraged buyouts?

Right – MBOs, and particularly turnarounds, because I had a very limited amount of capital, and I never wanted to accept anyone else’s equity capital – just our own. We had to start using our experience rather than our money, and so the companies that we were able to buy were companies that were performing badly or were close to bankruptcy. As we began to accumulate capital, of course, we could begin to buy other companies internationally; we do significantly more in Europe than we do in the United States. We have pretty much branched out now so we do startups, and I have a great deal of fun with taking an idea and trying to make it into a commercially viable enterprise.

How do you look at China, both as an emerging market and an opportunity for your own company?

China in general is a tremendous opportunity – as a market in and of itself that is developing very, very rapidly, as well as for outsourcing and for buying parts and having whole products manufactured in China. For our company, it’s very much a method of lowering costs in areas where we either are or will be under increasing cost pressures, so we’ve set up a series of companies in China, and we will be doing more in China.

Are you worried about the quality of Chinese goods, or has the concern been overblown?

Not at all – it’s not been overblown. I think we as a country need to be a great deal more vigilant, particularly about food, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals that we import from China. The number-one issue for almost everyone, including us, is quality. In our first company, it took us three years before we got acceptable quality, and we only got it by putting some of our own people over there and checking every single item before it was packaged and shipped. Obviously, there are many more issues: the rapid wage inflation that they’re experiencing, the environment that is being polluted to the extent that it’s almost incredible in our eyes. So China is not all roses.

Your name comes up over the years as a supporter of Republican candidates. Do you plan to take an active role in this year’s campaign?

To the extent that I’ve been active, it’s not been on the Republican side, but it’s for Obama.

Does that represent a switch for you?

Definitely, because normally I’d be supporting the Republican candidate. But in this election, I just strongly feel that as a country, we need a change.  

Interview conducted and condensed by W. Raymond Ollwerther ’71, PAW managing editor.