Make us your home page

The Koch brother who lives in Palm Beach

... the yearning of a man who owns everything for something that doesn't come with a price tag.


... the yearning of a man who owns everything for something that doesn't come with a price tag.



Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary in Sunday's Floridian:

"I'll let Mr. Koch know you're here," says the man at the door.

Coffee or juice, he asks, then disappears. A small black orb protrudes from the ceiling — a security camera watching over artworks that would make a museum director drool: Monet, Picasso and Renoir. Sunlight animates an atrium in the distance, a statue of a nude woman rising from a pool.

The owner of these riches, William I. Koch, has one of the best-known surnames in American politics, and he's running late for a rare interview to discuss his life and his tumultuous relationship with his brothers. When Koch appears 15 minutes later, he has this on his mind:

"You know why a shower makes you feel so good?" asks the man with wet hair and three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's because — this will tell you what a nerd I am — the nozzle squirts the water and separates the ions. It washes the positive ions down the drain, and the negative ions stick to your body and give you a slight charge."

Koch, charged and casually dressed on a Saturday morning in a western-style shirt and tan slacks, has planned an extensive tour of his Palm Beach home and its amazing collections. But he is nervous about something.

Koch leads the way to a western-themed room filled with cowboy revolvers, spurs and American Indian dresses, and eases his 6-foot-4 frame into a brown leather couch. Zorro, his English springer spaniel, hops up next to him.

"Just don't make me look crazy," Koch says.

The man worth $3.2 billion — comfortably in the top half of the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans — is worried about how he will come across.

Koch, 74, is the founder of Oxbow Carbon, a multinational company that is the world leader in distribution of petroleum coke, an oil refining by-product. He employs 1,200 people. He owns one of the most diverse private art collections in the world. He keeps homes in Florida, Massachusetts and Colorado, where his Aspen ranch is on the market for $90 million. He's building an Old West town a couple of hours from the ranch. In 1992 he bankrolled an improbable victory in the America's Cup sailing race. He spent $60 million to start a private high school in West Palm Beach that has received widespread acclaim.

Yet for all his wealth and accomplishments, Koch seems haunted by the reputation he gained during a nearly two-decade feud with his better-known brothers.

The brothers called him crazy in court, contending he was driven by inferiority and jealousy. He was the klutzy, stormy kid who didn't measure up in school or sports, or with girls, someone who once said of himself, "For a long time, I didn't think I was worth s---." Even today he is relegated to "the other Koch" status. Charles and David Koch (tied for No. 4 on the Forbes list with $41.5 billion) have become such influential, polarizing political figures, they are known simply as the Koch brothers. Bill Koch is one of the biggest political donors in Florida but is barely known, his ideology hard to pin down.

He may not be crazy. But his life in some ways is defined by conflict — with family, business associates, himself — a relentless quest to prove his value.

"One of the reasons I'm talking to you," he says, "is to show that I'm my own man."

Keep reading.

[Last modified: Tuesday, November 4, 2014 2:12pm]


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours