Even if you don’t know their names, you know their work. David and Charles Koch, 73 and 78 years old, respectively, are the chief owners of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately owned company in the United States and the parent corporation of such brands as Brawny paper towels, Dixie paper cups, and many others. Perhaps more significantly, they are also major political players, whether they prefer that label or not, as they bankroll some of the largest conservative political advocacy non-profits in the country. They’ve garnered quite a reputation over the years, and their surname has become synonymous with some of the issues many hold in politics: corporate funding in politics, campaign financing, misleading advertisements, and political propaganda.
The two brothers are so powerful, in fact, that they largely overshadow the rest of their family’s history. Their father, Fred Koch, traveled to the U.S.S.R. in the ’30s and helped build oil refineries for Josef Stalin, before returning to the U.S. as a staunch anti-Communist after being horrified by the treatment of the Soviets towards their citizens. He began Koch Industries soon after, and joined the John Birch Society, a conservative group known for their fear of Communism, and for their suspicion that President Eisenhower was himself a secret Communist. Fred Koch died in 1967, and turned the company over to his sons; four of them, actually. The third, William Koch, is a businessman as well, with a net worth of $4 billion according to a Forbes report from March of 2012, making him one of Forbes 400 richest men in the world. The fourth, Frederick Koch, is a much more elusive character.
After a dispute in the mid-’80s, Charles and David took control of their father’s company, while the other two went their separate ways. According to a biography in the “Village Voice,” William no longer speaks to his brothers, and hasn’t since the fight nearly three decades ago. Though he does donate money to many conservative groups, he separates himself from his brothers in that regard. His spokesman claimed in the same piece in 2011 that, “Bill Koch isn’t Charles Koch and he isn’t David Koch. He’s not his brothers’ keeper.” Still, he is no saint. The issue back in the ‘80s? After Charles took over as CEO in his father’s absence, Bill worked as a consultant at Koch Industries for a decade or so before attempted to seize the board, then later sued Charles and David for corporate mismanagement.
His brothers countersued on libel charges. Bill and Frederick agreed to bought out by their two brothers in 1983, but Bill later decided the amount (a cool $470 million) wasn’t enough and brought another suit against his brothers. The legal back-and-forth continued for another two decades, with Bill at one point subpoenaing his elderly mother just months after she had suffered a stroke. Bill’s investments have also at times come under fire for environmental errors, much like those of his brother’s companies. The moral complexities of the brothers are, evidently, readily apparent.
Still, the last remaining and eldest brother, Frederick Koch, has an identity that remains hard to pin down. While his siblings have enjoyed some amount of time in the public spotlight, he maintains a reclusive lifestyle. If you google his name, a fair amount of the pictures, of which there are few, seem to be taken from the same event, with Frederick in the same tuxedo. When his brothers went to MIT to study engineering like their father, he went to Harvard to study literature, which he followed up with a MFA in drama from Yale.
He walked away from the company after the dispute with $330 million, a bit incredible since he was, for reasons most likely only known within the family, left out of his father’s will, according to a 1989 profile of the family in Fame Magazine. Fred then moved to Monaco, and followed his penchant for the theatre, art, and 19th-century England. He donated $3 million to build the famous Swan Theatre, an attempt to recreate a Shakespeare-era theatre. The Queen thanked him in her speech at the grand opening – though, tellingly, withheld his name.
In the last few decades, he has only managed to further his low-profile identity. He has purchased and refurbished many high-scale establishments, ranging from Frank Woolworth’s New York Mansion to an Austrian hunting lodge that was once home to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the man whose assassination was partially responsible for World War I. Though he has undoubtedly made some money along the way, he does not own a company, and lives a life very separate from that of his brothers. The story of the Koch family is a surprisingly complex one, with many moving parts. Perhaps, as the brothers grow older (Fred is now 81), some resolution will be made in a tale of a few larger-than-life individuals.