Leon "Lee" Cooperman was born in 1943 in New York's South Bronx, the son of Polish immigrants. His father was a plumber and a "workaholic." says Cooperman. "He worked six days a week and was a good provider. We were lower-middle class, but I never knew need. Much later, when I was 40, my father had a heart attack and died installing a sink for a friend. He had been retired because of a heart condition, and he had no business doing that job, which required him to walk up four stories with a heavy sink. But he was doing a favor for a friend, and in his book that's what was important. I learned from my father to be generous, charitable, and kind to others."
Cooperman was an industrious young man. He got a job weighing and packaging fruit, and then he worked for several years fixing flat tires in a tire shop. As a teenager, he worked as a theater usher. "That was my first real job out of the community," he says. "I had to travel to get to work. I earned 55 cents an hour and put all my money in the bank."
Education was important to Cooperman's parents, and they instilled in him a desire to do well in school. He grew up in the public school system and then went to City University of New York's Hunter College, the first in his family to attend college. "I got a first-rate education there for the princely sum of $24 per semester," he says. "During my sophomore year, I met my future wife, Toby, in French class. When she became class president, I served as vice president. Our first date was the junior prom. We've been married for 50 years."
At first, Cooperman planned on becoming a dentist. He finished his undergraduate degree in three years as a chemistry major, but eight days into dental school, he knew it wasn't for him. "I had to make a big decision in a short amount of time," says Cooperman. "I had to give up a year's tuition to leave dental school." He begged Hunter's president to let him return to school to continue his studies. Because he had completed his credits for his major and minor, he needed 10 electives to meet his graduation requirement. He took 10 classes in economics, getting A's in each, finally finding a subject that interested him.
He joined Xerox as a quality-control engineer in 1964. In 1965, he took a leave of absence to attend Columbia Business School, where he earned his MBA. Cooperman's business degree opened the door for him to pursue his real passion, investment research. He joined Goldman, Sachs & Co. the day after his graduation, grateful for a good-paying job to help with his personal responsibilities.
At the time, the young couple had a six-month-old baby to care for, substantial college loans to repay, and a negative net worth. Lee spent his first 22 years in the firm's investment research department, ultimately as partner-in-charge and as co-chairman of the Investment Policy Committee and chairman of the Stock Selection Committee. From 1976 to 1986, he was voted each year onto Institutional Investor magazine's All-America Research Team for portfolio strategy, and he was ranked first in the sector from 1977 to 1985.
In 1991, after 25 years of service, Cooperman retired from his positions as a general partner of Goldman, Sachs & Co. and as chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. The next day, he launched Omega Advisors, Inc., a New York-based investment advisory firm that manages $5.2 billion in assets. He is Omega's chairman, CEO, and chief investment officer. "The past 23 years at Omega have been years of happiness and good fortune, with a few bumps along the way," he says. "Although I work hard, I must also say that I've had more than my share of good luck. The way to be successful is to do what you love and love what you do."
Cooperman is a strong believer in education. "The lifetime earnings of a college graduate are substantially greater than the earnings of a high school graduate," he advises young people. "You need skills; you need to be competitive. My life demonstrates this fact. When I was an undergraduate, I was making $7,500 a year at Xerox. I went back to get my graduate degree and then started at Goldman Sachs at $13,000, so I doubled my income by taking two years to make myself more competitive. Work hard, stay in school, and get a good education, that's the best advice I can give a young person today."
Cooperman credits much of his success to good luck, though he also advocates hard work. In an address to Texas A&M University graduates, he offered this advice: "Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up and knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. And every morning, a lion wakes up, knowing it must outrun the slowest gazelle or starve to death. The lesson is that it doesn't matter whether you're a lion or a gazelle; when the sun comes up, you'd better be running!"
Throughout his life, Cooperman has been guided by the simple values passed on to him by his father. Despite his substantial financial success, he avoids hiring people to do services he can do on his own. He drives himself to work, he changes his own light bulbs, and he buys his daily newspaper at the stand near his office. "It's just the way I was raised," he says. "I tell young people no matter how much money you have, the one luxury you cannot afford is arrogance. I quote William Phelps, who said, '˜The first test of a gentleman is respect for those who can be of no possible value to him.'"
Cooperman has a teenage granddaughter who enjoys doing charitable work. She raises the questions posed by Rabbi Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am not for others, then what am I? And if not now, then when?"
"My granddaughter's answers to these questions underscore my philosophy of life. She says, '˜If it were not for others, no one will be for you. If you are for others, then others will be for you. Your charitable actions will show others to be for more than only themselves. And the time is always now."
In a letter to Warren Buffett, Cooperman stated: "Toby and I feel it is our moral imperative to give others the opportunity to pursue the American dream by sharing our financial success." The Coopermans, who endorse Andrew Carnegie's observation that "he who dies rich, dies disgraced", are signatories to The Giving Pledge and manage their charitable donations through the Cooperman Foundation. The Coopermans have also pledged $25 million each to St. Barnabas Medical Center Foundation, Hunter College, and Cooperman College Scholars (an education initiative based in Essex County, New Jersey).
Cooperman has an honorary doctorate in finance from Roger Williams University and an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Hunter College. In 2014, Columbia Business School gave Cooperman its Distinguished Leadership in Business Award.
In 2007, he and Toby created the Cooperman Scholarship Challenge, which funded more than 40 needs-based college scholarships. Proud of his religion and heritage, Cooperman is a donor to Birthright Israel, a program that sends young Jewish adults on visits to Israel to promote Jewish identity.
Several years ago, Cooperman read some advice from William Ward. "His thoughts perfectly align with how I think we should live our lives," he says. "This is what William Ward tells us: '˜Before you speak, listen. Before you write, think. Before you spend, earn. Before you invest, investigate. Before you criticize, wait. Before you pray, forgive. Before you quit, try. Before you retire, save. Before you die, give.' I couldn't agree more."