CHICAGO -- Edward Lowe spent more than half his lifetime building his fortune, but it's not going to take him nearly that long to give a lot of that money away.
Mr. Lowe, 71, invented cat-box filler, which he marketed as Kitty Litter. It revolutionized the way cat lovers care for their pets.
Mr. Lowe said he made $3.50 in 1947, his first year in business. In 1990, when Lowe sold his majority interest in his firm, Edward Lowe Industries, sales of its two main cat-litter products, Kitty Litter and Tidy Cat, were more than $160 million. Together they accounted for more than 30 percent of the $500 million a year in industry sales.
The new owners, Knightbridge Inc. of Chicago and Good Capital Inc. of New York, renamed the firm Golden Cat Corp.
Mr. Lowe took his profits from the sale, which he would not reveal, and returned to his private retreat, Big Rock Valley, a 3,000-acre farm in Cassopolis, Mich.
But retiring was the furthest thing from his mind.
His new goal was to see another dream become a reality: Developing a foundation to nurture the development of privately held businesses in the U.S.
Mr. Lowe has been putting his money where his heart is.
He created a foundation bearing his name. He has donated his farm as its headquarters and also as a meeting and business retreat center. And he has established a $21 million trust fund to assure it a solid financial base from which to grow.
There are a couple reasons Lowe is doing these things.
One is practical. "There's a saying: 'He who gives while he lives also knows where it goes,' " he said.
The other is visceral. Mr. Lowe believes that in the U.S., independent business people, or entrepreneurs, need all the help they can get.
"Entrepreneurs are the backbone of this country but they have been forgotten," said Mr. Lowe.
"Becoming a successful entrepreneur is not easy," Mr. Lowe said in an interview last week. "Wouldn't it be great if they had a place to go to become indoctrinated about what they will face in business or to get support from their peers?"
That's the kind of atmosphere he wants to create at Big Rock Valley. Assisting him in this project is his wife, Darlene, the foundation's vice chairman.
"Big Rock Valley will be a place for peers to come together. I have a feeling that a lot of entrepreneurs feel alone," said Mrs. Lowe. She is the foundation's chairman and executive director.
She said their main goal is deciding where the foundation will focus its efforts.
"We've spent two years studying what's needed," she said. The research has taken various forms including working with college students and sponsoring seminars for a variety of business groups ranging from startups to family-owned operations.
"Through all the pilot programs, we've learned that we can't do it all. We're going to take a hard look at where to place our efforts," she added.
The Lowes said their initial efforts have shown that independent business operators share some concerns. Among them are how to obtain financing and the need for mentors, people from whom they can learn and with whom to share their ideas.
The Lowe foundation recently granted about $1 million to the business departments at Western Michigan and Michigan State Universities to study the needs of privately held businesses. The foundation will use this information to further focus its efforts, the Lowes said.