Otto Budig Jr.: Molding the cultural fabric of Cincinnati

By JOHN FAHERTY

Otto Budig Jr. works seven days a week, is a veteran who flew jets for the U.S. Air Force, and has donated tens of millions of dollars to cultural organizations in Greater Cincinnati.

That’s the Otto Budig Jr. everybody knows.

There is also the Otto who does smaller things that have real impact.

Otto Budig Jr.

Otto Budig Jr.

One year, Budig gave a $100 bill and a Christmas card to each employee of the Cincinnati Zoo because of their hard work during a difficult period.

Another time, he paid for a badly needed restoration of the women’s restroom at the Playhouse in the Park. As a result, Budig was named an “honorary woman” by those who actually who use the facility.

Budig and his wife, Sally, have three children. He cries when he talks about his dad. Today, the foundation through which Budig shows his generosity bears his father’s name.

All these things, and much more, are why the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Cincinnati Chapter is recognizing Budig as the 2015 Philanthropist of the Year at its National Philanthropy Day Luncheon, Nov. 12.

The chapter was straightforward in its announcement: “Cincinnati’s cultural fiber has been molded largely in part by Mr. Budig’s commitment to our community.”

That is a bold statement, but no exaggeration. Primarily through the Otto M. Budig Family Foundation, the honoree has given more than $30 million to a variety of recipients, focusing on the arts.

Beneficiaries include: Playhouse in the Park, the Cincinnati Ballet, the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra, Ensemble Theatre, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, University of Cincinnati Foundation, Cincinnati Museum Center, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and the Cincinnati Parks Board.

When Budig gives, he gives strategically and expects organizations to be run well. He wants the money to help the arts, but is particularly motivated to give when he sees the entire community also will benefit.

Budig started giving seriously in 1991, when he cut a check to Playhouse in the Park for $20,000 for a production of “Other People’s Money.” He laughs at the reminder that other people have been spending his money ever since. But he says he found the experience so gratifying that he kept giving, and a few years later formed the foundation.

The money comes from Budig’s company, Budco Group Inc., which works largely in the field of intermodal transportation. In short, the company moves shipping containers from one mode of transportation to another. Budco has a hand in moving 55 percent of all containers making their way across the United States and Canada. The company has approximately $200 million in annual revenue.

His financial success has allowed Budig to make a real difference in this region in the arts, and beyond.

He saw a need for a center of creativity in Northern Kentucky, so he spent a lot of resources helping The Carnegie in Covington. Budig grew up in Northern Kentucky and felt the area needed “to have an arts venue they could be proud of. A place for artists and actors and sculptors and painters. It has become a wonderful venue.”

Budig’s work with Music Hall is well known. He has been a key engine in the drive to raise the $125 million needed to restore the city icon.

Music Hall is the most recent example of Budig’s leadership in the community. The project faced setbacks and doubters, there was political drama and questions of viability. Through the entire process, Budig was steadfast in his belief in the project and his faith in the community. His steady hand made the difference.

He has given some and he has asked others to give as well. “I am telling you, it is going to be spectacular,” he said, speaking of Music Hall.

There are other examples of Budig’s generosity that show his impact on the city and region, and the kind of man he is.

Sitting in his office in Queensgate, Budig acknowledged that five years ago he gave fairly significant checks to three arts organizations in town that were struggling financially.

“They were doing good work, but they were always behind. They were paying last year’s bills with this year’s revenues,” Budig said. “That is no way to run an organization.”

So Budig told the recipients the money was meant to get their finances in order, and that he would not feel comfortable donating more until they were in better shape.

“And, by God, they are all operating in the black,” he said of the organizations, which he preferred not to name. “It is just stunning. I have been blessed. I am glad I was able to give them the help they need.”

Another example is the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which Budig supports annually and generously. This is giving that supports the arts, helps a neighborhood, and draws people to the city.

As the CSC begins its plans to move to a new playhouse at 12th and Elm streets in Over-the-Rhine, Budig said he is happy to give for two reasons: it will allow the CSC to do even better work with new facilities, of course, but the playhouse “will also provide a linchpin for development along that particular stretch of Over-the-Rhine.”

Jay Woffington is the executive director of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. He said Budig’s continuing support is instrumental to the group’s success.

“To have that stable support is huge for us,” Woffington said. “That stability allows us to take risks and to think long-term. It allows us to do much better work.”

Woffington points specifically to the company’s decision to join the “Canon Club,” a national designation for Shakespeare companies that have performed all 38 of his plays. Few companies can afford to pull this off, because it is the big plays – “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “King Lear” – that put people in the seats.

But with Budig’s support, the CSC was comfortable doing all of them, a treat for the entire city. The company, for example, was able to do “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” a relatively obscure play seldom performed. “We had people coming from around the country … because they had never seen it,” Woffington said, adding a statement that might well be echoed by every recipient of Budig’s help, and Greater Cincinnati as a whole:

“There is no way we can do that without Otto.”  

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