Ken and Tammy Fisher are all about family—family business, family philanthropy, and supporting military families. Ken is a partner at Fisher Brothers, a Manhattan-based construction company founded in 1915 by his grandfather and two of his great uncles. He is the chairman—and his wife, Tammy, is a trustee—of Fisher House Foundation, founded by his great uncle Zachary. And Fisher House Foundation is dedicated to building a nationwide network of Fisher Houses, which provide free lodging to the families of hospitalized veterans and military personnel.
The Fisher family traces its origins to Ken’s great-grandfather, Karl, who left Lithuania for New York around the turn of the century. A stonemason by trade, Karl raised his sons to be bricklayers. In 1915, three of those sons—Martin, Larry, and Zachary—founded Fisher Brothers. They started out building residential units across the city, but by the mid-1950s, they were branching out into commercial construction and management. More recently, Fisher Brothers has diversified into hotel and financial investments.
Ken Fisher grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. He attended Ithaca College, but, eager to enter the construction business, he left early and went to work. He started out as a laborer, working his way up to project supervisor and finally settling into leasing and management in 1985. Today, he is responsible for managing, marketing, and leasing a portfolio of more than 6 million square feet of Fisher Brothers–owned Class A real estate in midtown Manhattan.
Tammy was born in northern California and raised in southern California. After school, she took a job at the Roxbury, an exclusive Hollywood nightclub. While there, she was introduced to a young builder from the Bronx. Six weeks later, they were engaged; six months after that, they were married. Three children and 18 years later, she and Ken are still going strong.
The Fishers direct virtually all of their charitable giving to Fisher House Foundation, but they contribute their time to a number of other causes. Ken has worked to support the Jackie Robinson Foundation, the Association for the Help of Retarded Children, and serves on the board of the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Tammy serves on the board of the International Brain Research Foundation and works closely with Newman’s Own Foundation.
Philanthropy spoke with Ken and Tammy Fisher at the Fisher Brothers headquarters on Park Avenue in Manhattan.
PHILANTHROPY: Can I ask you to give us a quick overview of Fisher House Foundation? What is it? Who does it serve?
MR. FISHER: Fisher House is a pretty simple concept. Basically, the foundation builds multi-unit residential properties near major military and V.A. medical centers. Once they’re built, we hand them over to the government. When a service member or a veteran is hospitalized, his or her family can stay at the house, free of charge, for as long as they like. We want vets and service members to be surrounded by their loved ones while they’re recuperating.
Right now, there are 46 Fisher Houses. They’re located on 18 military installations and at 15 V.A. medical facilities. Each house has between 6 and 21 suites, and can host 12 to 42 family members at a time. All the houses have dining, kitchen, laundry, and recreational areas. We build them with libraries and stock them with kids’ toys. They’re all built within walking distance of the medical facilities. We don’t want families to have to think about renting cars or getting bus passes.
So far, we’ve provided free lodging to more than 130,000 families—about 11,000 families last year alone. In all, we’ve offered over 3.5 million nights of free lodging. To the families, that means a total savings of almost $150 million in travel expenses. We have a number of new houses coming online, and even more under construction, so we expect those numbers to grow quickly in the near future.
MRS. FISHER: We expect to have 50 open before the end of the year. We have 12 houses in development at the moment. How many were there when we came on board?
MR. FISHER: I think there were 24.
PHILANTHROPY: Turning the clock back even further, can I ask where the idea for Fisher House first originated?
MR. FISHER: The idea was actually given to my uncle—Zachary Fisher—by Pauline Trost, who was the wife of the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral [Carlisle] Trost. Zach had brought the USS Intrepid to Manhattan and converted it into the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, and he had gotten to know a number of folks in the Navy. Back around the time of the First Gulf War, Pauline told Zach about a sailor who was sleeping in his car while his wife was in the hospital. Pauline asked him why he was sleeping in his car. He told her that he couldn’t afford a hotel.
And that was the birth of Fisher House. It’s that simple. Zach basically financed the construction of the first 10 houses with money from his own pocket. There was no foundation at the time. Zach was the foundation. It was only after the concept had started to take hold that a foundation was formed. But in those first few years, Zach was happy to do it by himself. He couldn’t serve because he busted his knee in a construction accident. This was his way of serving. He always considered the men and women of the military to be our greatest national treasure.
MRS. FISHER: These men and women give so much and get so little. When we go see these soldiers with their families, they cry and hug us and thank us, but we always say, “Please don’t thank us. Thank you. You’re the ones who make the sacrifice.” It can be hard to go to hospitals and visit young soldiers with no arms or no legs. And, going a step further, their spouses are amazing, too. Some of the soldiers are 20 or 25 years old, and they come back in really bad shape. And these spouses live in the hospitals with them. They give up their whole life because their spouses went to fight a war for their country. That’s a big sacrifice.
MR. FISHER: It’s a sacrifice that nobody notices. It’s an under-appreciated fact of war.
MRS. FISHER: The spouses are nowhere near as appreciated as they ought to be.
MR. FISHER: It’s very different from how it was back when Zach started Fisher House. Back then, the injuries we saw were from training accidents or routine problems that you see among civilians: cancer, complicated pregnancy, car crash. But like Tammy says, now we’re seeing a lot of combat injuries. It can be tough.
I remember in 2002, when they started coming home from Afghanistan. There was a Special Forces sergeant—a real tough cookie—who had what was left of his arm basically pinned to his body. When Tammy and I walked into his room, he got up from the bed and came over to thank me and shake my hand. He couldn’t use his arm at all. I shook his hand as best I could, and then I turned around and walked out of the room. I was pretty shaken up—him unable to shake my hand, and him saying thanks to me. There are thousands of stories like that at every house, and every one is compelling.
PHILANTHROPY: When did you decide that you wanted to take responsibility for the foundation?
MRS. FISHER: When Zachary passed, we had to decide who was going to take responsibility for what. That was when Kenny and I took charge at the foundation. Of course, we had been involved with Fisher Houses before that. We traveled with Zach and we went to house openings. That’s when we really fell in love with it. And when we took responsibility for the foundation, for a while, we were totally focused on Fisher House. Now, I’ve branched out and I’m now a part of Newman’s Own and I’ve joined the board of another foundation, IBRF [International Brain Research Foundation], which I learned about through Fisher House. And Ken has worked with a lot of other charities, too.
PHILANTHROPY: I would imagine your professional expertise would be invaluable. After all, the Fisher House Foundation focuses on what you know best: building.
MR. FISHER: It definitely meets our skill set. And we can build these facilities much faster than the government can. We’re not subject to the same bureaucracy that can really slow down government projects. I can control the pace because I’m working with private money. Now, of course, not all of it’s our money. A lot of it is donated by the American people, so I have a strong incentive to be very careful about how it’s allocated. We watch every nickel and every dime as if it were our own. We run this like a business. I used to say we run it like a public company. Now, I say we run it like a public company that didn’t need to be bailed out.
MRS. FISHER: Be nice.
MR. FISHER: Sorry.
PHILANTHROPY: But on the larger point: How do you apply your business skill set to chairing the Fisher House Foundation?
MR. FISHER: Well, first off, we stay focused on our core mission. We stick to what we know best, and that’s building houses. The Fisher House concept is beautiful in its simplicity. This is not a complicated system where I need hundreds of people. We have a very small staff. We’re not heading off in 14 different directions. I don’t want that. If you start doing too much, it could mean money is going to places where it may not be necessary.
Second, we keep things absolutely streamlined; there is no waste in this organization whatsoever. Our administrative costs are absolutely minimal. I am proud to tell people that 97 cents on every dollar goes straight to building houses. I am committed to making sure that we maximize our return on investment. That is an obligation we have to everyone else who donates. They are the shareholders, and the houses are their dividends. We owe it to them to ensure that the money they invest is used for its intended purpose. The AIP [American Institute of Philanthropy] profiled 40 charities in the veteran-services sector; I think 19 got an F. We got an A+. Six straight years, we have gotten that A+ rating.
Another insight I learned in business is the need for accountability. Besides my work at Fisher Brothers, I serve on the board of one public company, Strategic Hotels and Resorts, and I also served on the board of Realogy, before it was bought by a private equity group. When you’re on corporate boards, you quickly get a sense of how important transparency and accountability are. Now, look at the foundation’s audit committee. Not one family member sits on the audit committee. Why? Because in the private sector, you’re required to have independent board members. Now, that’s not required by the 501(c)(3) code. But we do it anyway. I don’t want to sit in audit meetings because I don’t want to influence the committee members. If something’s wrong, I want to know about it. I want good, honest information so that we can all hold each other accountable.
PHILANTHROPY: Would you be willing to tell us either how much time you spend on Fisher House, or how much money you have contributed to it?
MR. FISHER: I dedicate a lot of time to Fisher House. For one thing, I don’t really travel for Fisher Brothers, but I travel quite a bit for Fisher House.
MRS. FISHER: A lot.
MR. FISHER: Well, with 12 houses currently under construction, it just requires a great deal of time. But I don’t want to give you a monetary number—for two reasons. One, because that’s not what we do. Tammy and I don’t tell people how much we contribute to charity. Two, even if we did talk about it, I don’t think I could give you a number. It’s not what we do.
MRS. FISHER: We never even think about that.
PHILANTHROPY: The Fisher family has long supported the New York Police Department through the Police Athletic League, the Police Museum, and the New York City Police Foundation. Have you ever considered something like a Fisher House for the families of hospitalized police officers?
MR. FISHER: No, there’s not really a need for it. If there were a special situation, that would be one thing. But remember, in general, these officers are men and women who live here. Their families don’t need to travel much more than, say, from Yonkers to Brooklyn or from Staten Island to Queens. So there’s not really the same need for a house.
MRS. FISHER: We would do it if we thought they needed it.
MR. FISHER: Absolutely we would. And my grandfather and uncle, Larry and Zach, they used to give $10,000 to the family of every officer who was killed in the line of duty.
MR. FISHER: It was the same basic idea. Now, of course, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund has changed its mission. But the original mission was very similar: to supplement what the military calls—I hate this phrase—the “death benefit.” For years and years, it was ridiculously low. When Zachary started the program, I think the death benefit was $6,000—taxable. What Zach did—and, later on, my father and my late cousin, Tony Fisher—was supplement that benefit. Between 2000 and 2005, it gave out over $20 million, $11,000 to each surviving spouse and $5,000 to each dependent child. It wasn’t until 2005 that the government finally got wind of the fact that we weren’t doing right by these families. Then Congress upped the benefit a great deal.
After that happened, it was decided to move in a new direction. Tony had passed away in 2003, and my father, Arnold Fisher, became the honorary chairman. He worked with Richard Santulli [NetJets founder and chairman of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund] through the process of gearing it more toward rehabilitating combat-wounded military personnel.
That’s how the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund decided to build the Center for the Intrepid, which is a 60,000-square foot, $45 million state-of-the-art physical rehab center at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. It opened in January 2007, when it was handed over to the military. More than 600,000 Americans contributed money to that effort. And we built two new 21-room Fisher Houses to support it.
MRS. FISHER: It’s an amazing facility. They provide occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling. It has labs that specialize in fitting prosthetics, with dozens of cameras fitted to computers that check to make sure the new prosthetics have the best possible fit. It has a wave pool, an indoor track, a gym, and a two-story climbing wall. It’s just incredible.
MR. FISHER: My father just completed a second facility—the National Intrepid Center of Excellence [NICoE]—at Bethesda Naval Hospital. It’s a 72,000 square-foot diagnostic assessment center that’s designed to provide the most advanced services for traumatic brain injuries and psychological health issues. We’re seeing a lot of service members survive head wounds that would have been fatal even just 10 years ago. They need intense therapy and rehabilitation, and that’s what NICoE is designed to provide. Again, there will be two 21-room Fisher Houses nearby.
MRS. FISHER: The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund also served soldiers from other countries—the British for sure, and I think some Italians, too. Kenny’s father was actually knighted by the Queen.
MR. FISHER: Dad was knighted because the fund was supplementing the death benefits in Britain.
PHILANTHROPY: Speaking of other countries, have you ever been approached by anybody in, say, Australia or Canada about setting up their own version of Fisher House?
MR. FISHER: Once. I met somebody from Canada who was interested in starting a Fisher House-like program. I haven’t heard from him since.
PHILANTHROPY: One of the impressive things about Fisher House is how it has built out its basic services. Can you tell me, for example, about the Hero Miles program?
MRS. FISHER: One of the women on our board, Mary Jo Myers—who is the wife of [Gen.] Richard Myers, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—had the idea. Basically, if a soldier is hospitalized, the military will pay travel costs for a few select family members. But a lot of times, the soldiers want to see someone who isn’t covered by the travel allowance, like a fiancée or grandparent, or an aunt and uncle. A lot of times, the families just can’t afford to pay for it. What Hero Miles does is make it possible for family members to fly to them for free. We buy the tickets with frequent flier miles that people have donated to the program. There are lots of businessmen with a million miles who never want to get on another plane. We ask them to donate their unused miles to us. We had a huge response, and now we have a huge number of miles.
MR. FISHER: For the families of troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, the program has provided more than 20,000 free tickets. It saved those families more than $27 million. It’s just fantastic that so many Americans have stepped up and donated their miles.
MRS. FISHER:The truth is, if a wounded soldier wants somebody there, then it’s important to us that that person is there. Like we say: a family’s love is the best medicine. Who’s to say who you’re closest to? Some people are closer to their uncle than to their brother. With Hero Miles, as long as the soldier wants you there, you’re there.
PHILANTHROPY: How about Newman’s Own?
MRS. FISHER: It’s a program we started with Paul Newman before he passed. We give awards to small organizations that are doing things to help the military. Most years, we get at least 150 submissions. It can be really simple, as long as it really helps the troops. One year, we gave an award to a woman who brings her chocolate chip cookies to one of the houses. It’s as simple as that. We just thought it was so cool that all the soldiers knew her, that they looked forward to getting her cookies every week. They didn’t want clothes, or shoes, or cars. They wanted those chocolate chip cookies. That’s how simple it is to help.
MR. FISHER: All of these are local initiatives centered around the bases. There are five awards, and the winners each get $15,000. The grants are provided through the Newman’s Own people on the basis of how Tammy and the other judges rank them.
PHILANTHROPY: So you’ve built out Fisher House to include Hero Miles and Newman’s Own. You also have a scholarship fund for spouses and children of wounded service members. Do you have other ideas in mind?
MR. FISHER: Tons. But you know what? Like I said earlier, at the end of the day, Fisher House is beautiful in its simplicity. It’s the way it was set up and it’s the way it will always operate. What makes the foundation successful is that we know we can’t be all things to all people, so we don’t try to be. This is where we found our niche. This is where we’ll stay for now.
MRS. FISHER: Well, one way we deviate from the mission is by doing things like building the house in Dover.
MR. FISHER: Actually, that’s a really good point. We’re building a Fisher House at Dover Air Force Base, which will open around the beginning of November. Now, Fisher House is about life; it’s about healing. This one will be different. It will be for the family members of the troops who don’t make it. It’s being built so families can be there when their loved ones’ remains are repatriated. We pray that that house will never be used, but we know it will. That’s a fact of war. Our troops overseas are making the ultimate sacrifice every day.
MRS. FISHER: It’s our spiritual house.
MR. FISHER: It’s being built with a little prayer and meditation center. It’s a non-denominational space over across the street where people can go and pray. There’s a spiritual garden. If the weather is nice, family members can go and sit outside. We want people to have a chance to worship in whatever way they choose at this house.
MRS. FISHER: It’s smaller because we don’t expect people to stay very long.
MR. FISHER: Well, it’s going to be a nine-room house. It won’t have the same kinds of facilities as the other houses. We just don’t expect family members to want to stay much longer than two days. So it won’t be a traditional Fisher House, but that’s the kind of thing we mean when we say we might go outside of our mission.
PHILANTHROPY: What I find remarkable is that it took private American citizens—it took the Fisher family—to come up with the idea for Fisher House. Why is it that the federal government never thought to do something like this?
MR. FISHER: The military focuses on what our president, Dave Coker, calls “the bullets and the beans.” And, frankly, that’s what they should be focusing on. They can’t do everything, so they need to prioritize. And that means that there are always going to be unmet needs. But rather than sit back and wonder, “Why isn’t the government doing this?” we said, “You know what? We can do something about it.” We have these amazingly brave people in uniform, but they are massively under-appreciated. So for us, it’s an honor to be able to try to repay them for their service. It’s a privilege to do what we do.
PHILANTHROPY: After you’ve built a house, you hand it over to the government. Do you maintain a relationship with the houses?
MR. FISHER: We’ll always have a relationship with the houses because my uncle’s name is on it. Tammy and I will never walk away from a house. Never.
PHILANTHROPY: Could you ever take a house back?
MR. FISHER: No. When we complete the house, we hand the keys over. It’s theirs. Once we give it to them, they own it. We sign a proffer letter. It becomes government property.
PHILANTHROPY: You don’t fund any maintenance or ongoing operations?
MR. FISHER: No, it would get us involved with all sorts of things that cost money and aren’t our specialty. We’re builders. When people donate to Fisher House, they’re expecting a house to be built. If we got into maintenance, we would need an endowment. And nobody who donates to us wants that money to sit in an endowment. They want to know that the money was used immediately to build a house. Like I said, we run like a public company, and the houses are the dividends.
MRS. FISHER: But a lot of times people will call or go online and want to give a donation to a certain house. So we have someone at Fisher House Foundation who takes all those donations and directs them to that specific house. At Christmas, for example, we’ll get people who want to donate to one particular Fisher House. So we coordinate with the houses to make sure that they get the donations that are theirs.
MR. FISHER: That’s right. But we’re not going to put in a new roof on. We don’t do that kind of maintenance. What Tammy is talking about is the ability to give us a donation that’s earmarked for that house to paint the walls or buy new furniture.
PHILANTHROPY: Is there some ceiling on the number of Fisher Houses? At what point will you stop building them?
MR. FISHER: Our goal is to build one wherever there’s a need. So, yes, it is a finite number, but I don’t think we’re approaching it yet. In some cases, we’re revisiting places that already have a house, but that now need a second. We also have to be careful because, even though there’s real urgency right now, I want these houses to stand the test of time. I don’t want to build them and in 10 years find out they’re being used as a fast food restaurant.
PHILANTHROPY: Is there anything about the houses that has surprised you?
MR. FISHER: I think we were all surprised at how the families in the houses create their own support systems. The beautiful part of the houses is the communal living. Every room is pretty self-sufficient, with its own bathroom, television, desk, and drawers. But it’s not a hotel. There are communal facilities, like a common laundry room, kitchen, dining room, and living room. Families will sit together, eat together, and share the joy of the good days and the sadness of the bad days. If one family has to run out, another family will make their dinner and wrap it for when they get back. These families are all going through the same thing, and they’re all there to support one another. I don’t think anybody ever anticipated it. But it’s one of the most powerful things that happens at Fisher House.
MRS. FISHER: And they stay friends forever. They have reunions. We’ve even had families getting married. One family actually got married in the house.
MR. FISHER: Exactly. It’s not just a place to sleep. It’s a real home. It allows families to focus on the healing process. They don’t have to worry about how long they can afford to stay. They don’t have to worry about how they get from Point A to Point B, because all the houses are in walking distance of the hospitals. They don’t have to take a bus or a taxi. They can just walk over.
PHILANTHROPY: It’s remarkable how the Fisher family has kept its philanthropy focused. Generation after generation, everybody seems to be on the same page. I don’t have to tell you, but that doesn’t always happen. How do you do it?
MRS. FISHER: It’s true. We have three kids and they’re very much involved. They travel with us to all the openings and they go with us to the hospitals. They really love it—and they want to take over. They’ll kid us, saying, “Hey, why don’t you guys just retire and let us take care of the foundation?”
MR. FISHER: Our kids don’t have to be prodded to walk up to a man or a woman in uniform and say thank you.
MRS. FISHER: Oh, no. They always do. When we’re in airports, they know to approach uniformed military and thank them for their service. All of us—Arnold, Zach, Kenny, me, the kids—have such a passion for the military. Sure, we all have our own separate interests. I have a lot of other charitable responsibilities, and we have our kids and work. But the bottom line is that this is just what the family does.
MR. FISHER: I think that’s it. This is just what we do. The Fisher family is known for its philanthropy as much as for its business. But I also think the cause itself is very appealing. You don’t really have to spend a lot of time around the troops before you’re hooked. I mean, they’re an under-served population. You see that when you work with them.
MRS. FISHER: People in the military are so inspiring. They deserve the absolute best care that this nation can offer. And their families—they make incredible sacrifices that the average American has no concept of. It just inspires us with a deep sense of gratitude.
MR. FISHER: I think we’re born with the passion. I think it’s in the family DNA.
MRS. FISHER: I don’t know how you would describe it. But it’s part of what makes us a family.