After spending a lifetime creating hundreds of jobs, inventing dozens of medical devices and building a family empire, the Utah billionaire's legacy stood on a precipice late in the summer of 1989.
At first, his $15 million donation of Abbott Laboratories stock to the University of Utah's School of Medicine was hailed as the largest gift of its kind to any Utah institution of higher education.
Then-U. President Chase Peterson persuaded Sorenson to make the donation. In turn, Peterson promised to add Sorenson's name to the medical school.
But rumblings by faculty, students and the community quickly ignited a firestorm of controversy.
Just weeks after the gift was announced, many in the community were seething at the thought of the name change. Letters to the editor in local papers ridiculed the offering. Some questioned Sorenson's contribution to medicine. Many labeled him an egotist. Those opposed to the gift had legislation drawn up that would remove Sorenson's name from the school.
Finally, as the controversy reached a deafening pitch, Sorenson asked the university to return the $15 million in stock.
In the 14 years following the incident, Sorenson has remained nearly isolated from public view.
As a result, most Utahns know little about the vast holdings and products of his Sorenson Cos., the parent company to 32 corporations.
They know even less about 82-year-old Sorenson.
Most people likely don't know he survived a fight with prostate cancer last year.
Or that his recent philanthropy included a more than $30 million donation to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the restoration of the Nauvoo Temple.
Or that Sorenson's medical products can be found in hospitals around the world. Or that he holds roughly 60 patents.
Or that an unrelenting drive to find a better way still pushes the entrepreneur to work 40 to 50 hours a week.
Yet now Sorenson is taking a hesitant step back into the public eye.
Learning from the past
In a rare interview last month with the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV, Sorenson talked about his life and the legacy he hopes to leave behind.
A man with the means to buy his own skyscraper and emblazon his name across the top, Sorenson instead is content to work in what he jokingly refers to as the "grunge" part of town. It is here, for the past 41 years, that he has spent his time dreaming up new inventions and amassing a fortune.
And he has done it his way.
His political leanings depend on the person running for office. He has given campaign contributions to Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Rocky Anderson. He likes Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt and speaks fondly of Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson.
Until a few years ago, Sorenson was content to fly coach.
"I enjoyed being in coach as well as being up front," he said. "If the plane went down, we went down together."
He once owned a private jet, but he sold it several years ago to Alcoa for $1 million more than he paid for it.
And while he may drive to work in a new Lexus, he is content to eat lunch at his office.
Notwithstanding his phenomenal success, the world's 177th-richest man, worth an estimated $2.2 billion according to Forbes magazine, still harbors suspicions about life in the spotlight.
"I think he would like the publicity, but he considers it unseemly to think it. He has elected to keep quiet," said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Anderson, a longtime Sorenson friend.
Lingering memories of the U. uproar just might have something to do with his media shyness.
At the height of the controversy, fellow Salt Lake billionaire Huntsman urged Sorenson to give the school the money and drop the renaming idea.
"A philanthropist does not ask how the money is being used and what he is going to get in return. He is just interested in helping other people, period," Huntsman said. "If you give money with strings attached, it's not a gift, it's a business transaction."
Sorenson said he blames himself for the ruckus. He readily admits he wanted to be recognized. However, he also says he learned from that experience.
"I don't need my name on anything," Sorenson said. "When you give, you give without expectations, without requiring a reward."
In the past 15 years, Sorenson appears to have walked that talk.
In 2001, he formed the Sorenson Legacy Foundation, primarily for the purpose of giving to the LDS Church. Through that foundation, $5 million was donated to the church's Perpetual Education Fund, established to help people climb out of poverty through education.
"Jim has been very gracious to the LDS Church, and in that context I have great respect for him," Huntsman said.
Another charity, the James LeVoy Sorenson Foundation, was established in 1986 to assist Christian agencies and youth development and recreation services. It had more than $3.4 million in assets in 2001, according to The Foundation Center, a New York-based organization that tracks philanthropy.
This year, Sorenson gave $500,000 cash and 2.5 acres of property worth $886,000 to Salt Lake City to expand the Sorenson Multicultural Center in Glendale, a recreation center owned and operated by Salt Lake City Corp. for west-side youths. That deal, combined with $4 million from the Alliance for Unity, was instrumental in bringing about a resolution to Salt Lake's Main Street Plaza controversy.
"Without Jim Sorenson's help, the Sorenson Center would have never become a reality," Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson said. "I think he really wants to leave this a better world, and he has made tremendous strides in doing that."
J. Michael Mattsson, vice president for development at the U., said the Sorensons have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the university since the renaming flap.
Two years ago, Sorenson handed out $3 million to the Deseret Foundation, a charitable fund established by IHC to promote medical research, education and technology.
In 1991, Sorenson presented a $500,000 matching-fund donation to the Cathedral of the Madeleine restoration project.
His wife of 57 years, Beverley Taylor Sorenson, a philanthropist in her own right who has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to causes like Art Works For Kids, said her husband has been secretive about his giving, even with her.
On several occasions, he has purchased homes for single mothers in financial distress.
"I find out years later," Beverley Sorenson said.
Sorenson Cos. spokesman David Parkinson said much of the family's philanthropy is not distributed through the foundations.
For example, Sorenson gave $113,000 to Primary Children's Medical Center and $500,000 to Utah State University's Center for the School of the Future, a research center focused on improving education. He gave another $200,000 to a diabetes foundation three years ago.
'Grapes of Wrath'
If Sorenson's focus on giving has come late in life, his stark beginnings may help explain why.
He describes his childhood years as a "sort of 'Grapes of Wrath' era."
His parents, Joseph LeVoy and Emma Blaser, failed at farming in Rexburg, Idaho where Sorenson was born and moved their young family to Yuba City, Calif.
Sorenson's early home was a world apart from his present-day palatial house in Holladay. Back then, the family's home was little more than a chicken coop with tarpaper wrapped around it.
"My dad had to duck to go into the front door," Sorenson said. "I remember it was a celebration when he built a bathroom with a toilet and a shower. I guess what I remember most about the shower was one time I went in there and there was a water snake crawling up the shower curtain."
When Sorenson started school, his first teacher told him he was mentally retarded and probably never would be able to read. Sorenson accepted his teacher's assessment, believing he was stupid. It would be decades until Sorenson realized his childhood disorder was dyslexia.
The family's abject poverty during the height of the Depression was somewhat softened by devoted parents in particular, Sorenson's mother.
"She was my confidante. She was my courage. She was my comfort in times of stress," he said. "I didn't know how poor I was because I was too young to recognize poor from rich. I knew I was rich in things that counted, like a loving mother and a dedicated and productive father."
In spite of learning obstacles and low grades, Sorenson's talent for recognizing business opportunities soon surfaced.
At 13, Sorenson begged his father to buy the northern California Coca-Cola franchise for $2,300. His father had painfully scraped and saved the money over several years, but he was reluctant to make the deal without 60 days of working capital.
Sorenson offered to quit school and drive a delivery truck. But where the teenager saw a sure money-maker, his father saw only risk and decided not to take the chance.
It was a setback. But riches would not evade the young Sorenson much longer.
After serving an LDS Church mission to the New England states, Sorenson landed a pharmaceutical sales job with the Upjohn Co. covering the Salt Lake territory.
Between sales visits to physicians, Sorenson found himself scouting homes and property, trying to predict where Salt Lake's growth would turn next. Instead of lavishly spending money on physicians to attract their business, Sorenson would pocket the difference between the padded number his supervisor told him to report on his weekly expense sheet and the money he actually spent to buy a couple of Cokes for the doctors. The spare money invariably ended up buying land.
It was not long before the salesman was making more money off his real estate holdings than his full-time job. But his investment distractions did not go unnoticed by Upjohn. After 8 1/2 years on the job, the company fired him.
Sorenson stopped selling for Upjohn, but he kept buying land.
Today, he owns nearly 68,000 acres in Utah and smaller parcels in Wyoming and California.
Don Wallace, president of Sorenson Real Estate, places the current market value of Sorenson's property at $400 million. Those holdings include residential subdivisions, industrial parks, office space and retail centers. His White Sage Ranch, south of Fillmore, encompasses more than 400,000 acres of leased property for a cattle business.
Sorenson Real Estate owns Rosecrest, a 2,200-acre mixed-use development in Herriman and Bluffdale. Approximately 700 homes already occupy the site, with 5,000 homes planned. In Wasatch and Summit counties, Sorenson controls nearly 10,000 acres. Some 2,000 housing units have been approved for a development called Jordanelle Ridge, expected to begin construction in early 2004.
"He's really been good about projecting the path of progress," Wallace said. "In a lot of instances people probably think he has been too early, but in most cases he has been right on the money. He's picked it up at the right time at the right price. And ultimately development came to that area."
Becoming a billionaire
Sorenson's real estate holdings made him rich, but he broke into the ranks of billionaires with his sale of Sorenson Research to Abbott Laboratories.
Sorenson launched his research company in 1962 in the back room of LeVoy's, a lingerie company he also started.
When Sorenson was not preoccupied with the day-to-day details of manufacturing modest nightgowns and slips, his time centered on medical innovations, his true passion.
Within four years, Sorenson Research was sending products to market. By 1972, the company spun out on its own, offering about 500 individual products and employing 1,700 people.
Yet the fast growth posed a serious problem. The company was undercapitalized. And First Security Bank, which had loaned $21 million to Sorenson Research, was worried about a default.
Because the company had reached its loan limit, the bank pressured Sorenson to sell it or make an initial public offering of stock.
Sorenson was set against a stock offering, so he decided to sell.
In exchange for roughly $100 million in Abbott Laboratories stock, Sorenson Research became Abbott Critical Care Systems.
"As I remember that was about 32 or 33 times earnings," said Gary L. Crocker, the lead negotiator in selling the company and currently chairman of Salt Lake-based ARUP Laboratories Inc. "At that time, I was also amazed that anyone would go that high because it just assumes that growth is going to continue for a long time."
Since the deal closed in 1980, Abbott stock has made a two-for-one split five times. Sorenson is reluctant to talk about his Abbott shares or their worth, but he does refer to his Abbott stock as "the bank."
"If someone invested $100 million it would give them 2.6 million shares back then," said Jonathan Hamilton, manager of media relations for Abbott. "Today, after the splits, he would have 32 times what he had, or 82 million shares owned right now worth $3.277 billion."
More conservative estimates place Sorenson's Abbott stock at 52.4 million shares, which today would be worth roughly $2.1 billion, a value more in line with Sorenson's Forbes ranking.
The annual dividend return alone on 52.4 million shares would have amounted to nearly $50 million in 2002.
"He has financed most of his subsequent transactions out of the dividend flow," Crocker said. "He has been very hesitant to sell any Abbott stock because of the tax consequences of selling that kind of stock. Virtually the bulk of his estate remains that Abbott stock."
The titanic success of his sale of Sorenson Research to Abbott was tied in large part to the company's innovative medical products. Some of those products revolutionized the industry, according to Fred Lampropoulos, founder and chief executive of South Jordan-based Merit Medical Systems Inc.
Lampropoulos singles out Intraflow, a continuous flush device that kept catheters open by preventing coagulation and allowing physicians continuous measurement of invasive blood pressure.
"Prior to that time, they would have to do it on an intermittent basis," Lampropoulos said. "His company was the first company to come up with this device."
In fact, Intraflow became Sorenson Research's most successful product, accounting for 40 percent of the company's sales.
A high price
But if success and riches come at a price, the cost to Sorenson may well have been time itself.
Victor Cartwright, a former partner, calls Sorenson an intelligent, shrewd, hard worker. However, he said, making money became his life.
"He never takes a vacation. He doesn't have any hobbies. He doesn't play golf. He doesn't play tennis. He doesn't go on any cruises that I know of," Cartwright said. "He just liked to make money. That was his hobby."
On several occasions, Cartwright invited Sorenson to go fishing.
"I went fishing once or twice a year for 25 years to Alaska. I said, 'Come on, let's go fishing up there.' He said, 'No, I can't. Maybe next year.' Now that he's 80, he says we ought to plan a fishing trip. I said, 'Jim, I quit going up there four years ago.' "
Large fortunes often come at the expense of family, Cartwright added.
"I think that people who are like that, who acquire that kind of an estate, they have to neglect their family," he said.
James Lee Sorenson, Sorenson's eldest son, said his dad was away from home much of the time but he was a good father.
"He taught all of his children the value of work and, I think, good virtues," James Lee Sorenson said. "Dad was always one to be immersed in his work, but his family was very important to him."
Sorenson's wife, Beverley, agrees. She said the couple took their eight children on vacations to California by station wagon every summer and attended the New York World's Fair in 1965.
Still, she hinted she would like to see her husband cut back on a work week that often spills over into the weekend.
"He never stops," she said.
But Sorenson said work is what keeps him young. "Every day's a vacation for me."
Too much money
Columnist Jack Anderson suggests that Sorenson is like many other wealthy folks.
"He does not like to be asked for money," he said. "He never expressed this to me, but I sensed that he has the attitude of most wealthy people; that is, as soon as you get to know them you ask for money. They feel that is all you were interested in, you weren't interested in a relationship other than a financial one."
When Anderson was visiting Sorenson in 1999, he thought Sorenson might be interested in some of the same causes Anderson was furthering at USU.
"So I mentioned it to him, and boy, he turned cold on that at once," Anderson said. "He didn't say anything, but he was not interested in it."
Soon thereafter Sorenson had a change of heart, offering on another occasion to match dollar-for-dollar any money Anderson could raise.
Anderson came up with $500,000.
"I mentioned the figure to him, and he pulled out a checkbook and said to his secretary, 'Take this out of such and such account.'"
Richard West, executive director of USU's Center for the School of the Future, the organization that received Sorenson's matching $500,000 gift, said he once viewed the billionaire as self-absorbed. But his views have changed.
"I don't think the citizens know nor appreciate what Jim Sorenson has done," West said. "I don't think Jim is the flashy philanthropist some others are. He has supported a lot of causes. I think he does have some real compassion for people who are down and out."
As Sorenson examines his own life, his thoughts drift from the materialistic to the spiritual. It is the spiritual dimension of life, he will tell you, that is the most important.
"Things don't make you happy. I've learned that over and over again," Sorenson said. "People come to me four and five times a day with great causes that require money. And that's great, but money is not what I'm about. I'm about trying to help people."
His latest mission, which he describes as the "big one," involves building a monumental DNA database, allowing people to trace their ancestry.
The Molecular Genealogy Research Project has Sorenson's company gathering DNA samples from around the world, mapping inheritance patterns against which future customers will be able to compare their own DNA. He insists the work will show what he calls the "connectiveness of people."
"We are all brothers," he said. "If I wanted to be remembered, it would be to have a hand in helping the world be a more peaceful place."
His thoughts quickly race forward as he describes his newest idea, a microswitch pump designed to assist people with kidney failure.
"Abbott is excited about it, but I'm not ready to show it," he said.
Sorenson has always tried to be ahead of where he saw the crowd moving. But for an instant, he wonders at the scope of his own accomplishments.
"I've always felt like I have more to do …. Perhaps right now I've done too much, too much money."
Still, he does not plan to retire, and he likely will keep working long hours, developing new products and adding to his fortune.
For James Sorenson, enough will never be enough.
James Sorenson speaks one-on-one with KSL-TV Eyewitness News' Bruce Lindsay tonight at 10.
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