“JB? JB and I are not on speaking terms these days,” said Ken Griffin, the billionaire hedge-fund manager, referring to JB Pritzker, the Democratic governor of Illinois.
Griffin was wearing a light-blue dress shirt that wrinkled around his soft belly, suit pants, and untied black Oxfords. It was around 5:30 p.m. on a hot and humid Miami day last summer. I had come to a rented WeWork space 23 floors above the palm trees and million-dollar yachts to interview Griffin about his decision to relocate from Chicago.
We’d spent two hours talking before I finally asked the question on everyone’s minds: Was Griffin’s move politically motivated?
Griffin had publicly feuded with Pritzker over Chicago’s crime, Illinois state taxes, and how to run the government of the country’s sixth-most-populous state. But with a June announcement that he would move his business to Miami, Griffin had rid himself of having to make nice with Pritzker.
In Florida, Griffin has thrown in his lot with the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who has taken President Trump’s Make America Great Again policies, added more discipline, and ridden it to the top of the party’s presumptive 2024 presidential-candidate ticket. Griffin is now poised to offer his support to the potential nominee if needed.
Griffin, who is 54, told me he would serve as Treasury secretary, but only if the country is in economic trouble. “If the United States was in a maelstrom,” he said, “I’d do it in a heartbeat.” Based on comments he made last year, Griffin has even considered running for office.
Politicians need to have the interpersonal skills to work a room of potential voters. As I’d called around to current and former colleagues and others in his orbit in advance of the meeting, I’d heard about Griffin’s win-at-all-costs demeanor, his steely-blue-eyed stare at those who challenge him, and lack of social graces. But here, just down the hallway from a fridge filled with cold kombucha and a countertop scattered with bags of trail mix touting dubious health benefits, Griffin seemed at ease with his new surroundings.
A mass migration to Florida by the finance and tech set was well underway before Griffin made the move. The venture capitalist Keith Rabois moved from California’s Bay Area; and the prominent hedge-fund managers Paul Singer and Steve Cohen opened offices for executives fleeing New York. Yet Griffin is the biggest whale to wager on the region’s rise.
In 2020, Griffin bought at least three properties on the ultraexclusive Star Island, and recently unloaded one of the lots to the former Yankee Alex Rodriguez. A new home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Griffin is planning a new $1 billion office tower for a site near Miami’s waterfront to house his Citadel empire, one of the winningest hedge funds of all time, now managing more than $50 billion, and a trading firm that handles one out of every four US stocks called Citadel Securities.
In aligning with DeSantis, whom Griffin has backed since his 2018 run for governor, he’s setting a collision course with President Trump, who has said he’s running for president again. DeSantis has declined to say whether he’s running or not and has largely ignored Trump, but that hasn’t stopped Griffin from taking his swings. In November, Griffin called Trump a “three-time loser.” Griffin has said he would back DeSantis if the governor runs, telling Politico that the country would be “well-served.”
Less than two weeks before we met, Griffin gave $5 million to the DeSantis-controlled Florida Republican Party, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Wealthy donors like the hedge-fund titans Robert Mercer and George Soros and the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson have helped elect presidents in the past, and political insiders are abuzz over how far Griffin is willing to take his $32 billion fortune.
Jeff Hauser, a lawyer who works to uncover political corruption as the founder of the Revolving Door Project, said Griffin may become even more powerful to Republican’s financial fortunes than other donors, including Peter Thiel. Thiel gave more than $32 million to Republicans in the 2022 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org.
“He is definitely one of the most influential funders,” Hauser said of Griffin, “and he has the possibility to do more, especially if and when DeSantis runs for president.”
Griffin’s recent move to the Sunshine State dates back to the early days of the pandemic. In March 2020, his research suggested that the region’s hot, humid climate would successfully fight the spread of the coronavirus. He rented out the entire Four Seasons in Palm Beach, setting up a temporary trading floor for 50 people in the empty hotel. As Florida rolled back pandemic restrictions more quickly than Chicago, even more Citadel employees migrated south.
When the worst days of the pandemic were over and many went back to Chicago, they realized that they were fed up with a Chicago crime wave that led Griffin, in 2021, to declare that the city was like “Afghanistan on a good day.” In 2022, there were 39% more murders than there were during the same period in 2019, the Chicago Police Department reported.
“The number of my colleagues who faced personal moments of violent crime — whether they’d been stabbed, mugged at gunpoint, or had a bullet pass through their car— made it untenable,” Griffin said.
Even potential recruits wanted to avoid Chicago, but Griffin, who believes companies function better when people are in the office, wasn’t willing to tolerate a more remote workforce. So Citadel’s top brass considered moving to Boston, with its world-class universities and the Route 128 technology corridor, or Austin, Texas, before landing on Miami. Griffin still sees potential to expand in Boston.
Pritzker, speaking in a recent interview from Davos, Switzerland, acknowledged that he was “sorry” that Griffin had left Illinois.
Griffin has deep roots in Florida. He was born in Daytona Beach and went to high school in Boca Raton. His mother lives in Palm Beach, where he has been amassing a sprawling real-estate empire through a series of LLCs over the last several years. His ex-wife’s parents also live in the state.
For much of his career, Griffin focused on philanthropic causes. He bought modern art and lent it out, gave $16.5 million to bring the largest dinosaur ever discovered to Chicago’s Field Museum, and, as a serious conservationist, endowed an exhibit for the endangered Komodo dragon at the San Diego Zoo. Griffin’s philanthropic gifts have now surpassed $1.5 billion, a spokesman said.
Griffin grew tired of seeing his philanthropic efforts diminished by what he considers bad policy decisions. And in recent years, he discovered what many billionaires have discovered before him: There are few places with greater potential for influence in America than politics. In the 2008 election cycle, Griffin gave $189,000 to federal campaigns, directing a little more than half to Republican or conservative causes, according to OpenSecrets.org. Since then, he has ramped up his giving, increasing the amount by magnitudes, but also, over the past four cycles, directing it exclusively to Republican or conservatives. During the 2022 election cycle, Griffin donated more than $71 million to outside political groups, with every cent of it going to conservatives.
With money comes influence, and Griffin has already demonstrated that he enjoys the thrill of directing policy. He told me that he and his colleagues came up with the ideas that laid the foundation for Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s successful plan to rush a COVID-19 vaccine to market.
“I’m proud of my role in encouraging the administration to spend several billion dollars to buy an option that saved, at the end of the day, several hundred thousand American lives,” Griffin said.
Another time, Griffin got a call from a former employee who told him Trump’s Food and Drug Administration was blocking a trial for the antiviral drug remdesivir. So the hedge-fund manager “reached out to the White House, to Senate leadership, and to the House, and basically lit everyone on fire that the FDA has to get off their you-know-what, and take some thoughtful risks here,” Griffin said. The remdesivir trial started a few days later.
Griffin once had that kind of influence on the state and city stage. Griffin played nice with moderate Democrats like the Chicago mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard Daley. He spent $54 million to defeat Pritzker’s 2020 state tax proposal that would have raised Griffin’s taxes but lowered them for the majority of Illinois residents. (ProPublica later calculated that Griffin probably saved $51 million or more in annual taxes by helping to defeat the measure. A Citadel spokesperson told the news outlet that Griffin has paid more taxes in recent years than almost any American.)
But as a more progressive strain of Democratic politics took hold in Chicago with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and in Illinois with Pritzker, Griffin’s power began to erode. He showered $50 million on Richard Irvin, the mayor of Aurora, in his run for Illinois governor last year, only to see Irvin defeated in the Republican primary.
In Florida, Griffin will join forces with an already formidable base of Republican donors. Finance heavyweights like Thomas Peterffy, the Fanjul sugar barons, and The Villages retirement community, home to a vast network of predominantly Republican donors, already wield a lot of influence in conservative races, said Sarah Bryner, the research director for OpenSecrets.
“Florida is and will continue to be a major source of donors for conservatives,” Bryner said. “Putting himself in the center of that will increase his political power.”
While Griffin admits that there are people in the Republican Party who would like to see him get deeper into political giving — a welcome second act for many billionaires — he isn’t willing to give up his first act just yet. After all, Citadel is what has provided him with such a formidable political war chest. Forbes calculates his wealth at $32 billion, up from $12 billion in 2020.
It’s like, did I just peak?Ken Griffin, referring to his 2020 performance. (He crushed 2021 and 2022 as well.)
And Griffin is on a roll, notching a string of hedge-fund returns starting in 2020 that have become the envy of the industry. Griffin now worries about becoming complacent.
“It’s like, did I just peak?” Griffin said, referring to his 2020 performance. “This is 30 years of my life. We just had the best year we’ve ever had. Is this that moment? And then in 2021, we crushed 2020. So is this the peak? Is this the apex of 31-and-change years of my career?”
“Right now,” he continued, “we’re on a rate to crush last year.”
Griffin did in fact crush 2022. The hedge fund made $28 billion in revenue on the back of a 38.1% rate of return for its flagship fund, Wellington. Citadel Securities put up $7.5 billion in revenue.
In Citadel’s early days, Griffin did a little bit of everything, including writing code for the backend accounting system. He traveled to schools like the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he would interview students just a few years younger than him.
Griffin placed his firm at the forefront of learning how to model the financial markets in an industry that was still coming to terms with the power of computers and predictive analytics.
“The approach to investing we were taking was a decade ahead of its time,” said James Yeh, one of Griffin’s earliest hires and a friend. “We were inventing things.” And Griffin loved the challenge. “He was sharp,” said Yeh. “He was ambitious.”
Griffin devoured management books, hired consultants like Boston Consulting Group to compile intel on competitors, and brought in ex-CIA agents to train employees on interrogating corporate CEOs. Griffin labored over making successful trades repeatable. “Everything there has a process,” David Bunning, one of Griffin’s first hires, said. “We were trying to be the best at what we were doing.”
When competitors stumbled or failed, Griffin moved quickly to figure out what they did wrong and build those lessons into his business. In 1994, Federal Reserve interest-rate increases caught Wall Street traders off balance and led investors to pull a third of the fund’s money. Griffin rewrote his investor contracts so that he could hold investor money for longer. Four years later, the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management collapsed, but survived for longer than expected. Griffin interviewed LTCM employees and learned that the fund had extended its life by locking up long-term financing. He developed an internal operation that lessened his reliance on Wall Street loans.
“His capacity to learn is hard to overstate,” Bunning said.
Citadel almost collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008, losing 55% of its value, with most of those losses concentrated over 16 weeks. Griffin kicked in $500 million of his own money to pay performance bonuses and fought over the next 1,112 days to get back above the fund’s high-water mark.
What Ken enjoys more than anything is a debate, rather than, let’s call it a conversation.Tom Miglis, a longtime colleague who no longer works at Citadel.
Griffin strove to build something that would have influence long after him. When Pablo Salame, a senior Goldman Sachs trader, met Griffin sometime in the mid-2000s and told him he was thinking of starting a hedge fund with his name on it, Griffin advised against it. “He said, ‘You don’t want to hang your shingle with your name on it,'” Salame recalled. “You want to build something that lasts. You want to be able to create an institution that survives your departure.'” (Salame is now the co-chief investment officer at Citadel.)
Griffin expected colleagues to work as hard as he did. Peng Zhao, the CEO of Citadel Securities, first met Griffin as a second-year quantitative researcher in 2007, when Griffin called him on the weekend to help model mortgage markets. “I was a second-year QR, having an opportunity to work with one of the superstars in finance,” Zhao said. “How hard do you think I worked? But Ken was right there with me. That always left an impression on me, the drive and the will to understand, to succeed.”
Griffin’s personality could make Citadel a tough place to work, according to more than a dozen current and former employees. One person who worked there more than a decade ago said it felt to him as though the Citadel culture prized money-making above all else, even if it meant fostering a cold, cutthroat, competitive culture.
“Some people misunderstand Ken’s intensity and passion as being overly demanding,” explained Tom Miglis, a longtime colleague who no longer works at Citadel.
Current and former employees said Griffin encouraged them to strip human emotion out of the investment- and company-building process. But Griffin’s very human intensity would often boil over. Sometimes he shamed colleagues, called them names, or shouted at them during meetings, said several former colleagues. During one meeting sometime after the financial crisis, according to a second ex-employee, Griffin told someone their idea was “stupid,” and then said, “Stop being a fucking idiot.” The target of his vitriol stood up and left the room.
A Citadel spokesman declined to comment, but helped set up an interview with Scott Rafferty, who spent 18 years at Citadel as the firm’s head of investor relations. “Not once did I ever hear Ken call anyone a name, I didn’t hear him shame anyone or treat them in an inappropriate manner,” Rafferty said. He added that Griffin would raise his voice in meetings, but in a way that he interpreted as encouragement rather than criticism.
Griffin questioned executives in what several ex-employees described as core sampling, choosing one topic and probing with increasing intensity until he reached the limit of their knowledge. Often, Griffin would train his icy blue eyes on them, unblinking, for 30 seconds or more as Griffin considered what to say.
“What Ken enjoys more than anything is a debate, rather than, let’s call it a conversation,” said Miglis, who added that Griffin generates ideas quickly and expects his executives to respond in kind. “He thinks of every business conversation as the following, and this is a quote from Ken: ‘It’s a teaching experience. It’s a learning experience. Or it’s both.'”
Executives learned to spend hours preparing for meetings with him. More than one credits their preparation for making them a better executive.
“Ken goes down, down, down until he gets to the really core, most important parts,” said Salame, adding that some Goldman colleagues thought he was too detail-oriented, but it wasn’t enough for Griffin. “Now, as a matter of course, when I’m looking at something, I’ll stop and think, ‘OK. What questions haven’t I asked myself?’ The moment I started doing that, it made my interactions with Ken easier.”
Matt Andresen, an electronic-trading pioneer who helped Griffin build a business handling retail-investor orders that became part of Citadel Securities, remembered bursting into Griffin’s office one day to tell him that one of his business lines had just taken the No. 1 spot. Griffin congratulated him. A day or two later, Griffin wanted to know why Andresen wasn’t working to obliterate the next closest competitor.
“Some people aren’t used to being pushed like that,” Andresen said. “I liked being pushed.”
Griffin makes employees sign strict employment agreements, including some of the lengthiest noncompetes in the industry, and zealously enforces them. More than one person contacted by Insider declined to comment because of nondisclosure agreements that remain in force for years, and in one case more than a decade, after leaving Citadel.
At times, especially in the early days, Griffin had a reputation for churning through employees. In response, a Citadel spokesman noted that when the hedge fund was unproven and little known, “Ken had a small team and had to take bets on candidates who were at the very start of their careers.”
Griffin and his longtime lieutenants, Gerald Beeson, Citadel’s chief operating officer, and Zhao, acknowledged that the firms they manage can be intense places where emotions occasionally run hot.
Griffin said he has “high standards.” “And I’m not shy to tell you when you’re exceeding them, crushing them, or falling short.”
Griffin learned his drive at an early age. His father, Donald, was one of seven children, and the first to go to college. Donald got a job with General Electric, eventually rising to a position modeling the success rate for the Apollo 11 moon mission.
Ken, the older sibling to another brother and a sister, was born in Daytona Beach and spent time in Midland, Texas. By the time he was in high school, Griffin’s family had settled in the Boca Raton gated community of Boca Bath and Tennis. As a kid, Griffin wrote about the stock market, collected coins, and read the encyclopedia for fun.
Griffin started a small educational-software company as a teenager and hired peers to stuff envelopes and prepare mailings.
When Griffin’s parents gave Ken a choice of attending private high school or going to the local public school and getting a computer, he took the computer. He worked for IBM during the summer, and became president of the high-school math club. One year, in a computer competition, Griffin’s team finished third in the state finals. Even then, Griffin was competitive. “Ken to this day will swear they should have won the championship,” said Ernie McMullen, a childhood friend.
He also showed a fun side. He would provoke the Boca Bath and Tennis security guards, tossing smoke bombs and running away when the guards chased him, according to a former classmate. He also threw legendary parties, though friends knew not to step on the family’s fancy gold-colored carpet. During senior year, Griffin’s classmates gave him a choice of accepting the Most Likely to Succeed title or Party Reptile. Griffin, who finished among the top-five students in his class, chose the latter.
He enrolled at Harvard College in 1986, studying economics and government while he ran a small investment fund seeded with capital from a grandmother who had successfully built an Illinois fuel-oil-distribution business with her husband and continued running it when he died. Griffin persuaded officials at the school to let him install a satellite dish on the roof of his dorm so he could get security prices more quickly. Griffin was betting against the stock market when it crashed on Black Monday in 1987. He made money while many on Wall Street lost gobs of it.
Griffin wrote his thesis on capital markets and graduated from Harvard with honors, according to a spokesman.
He soon moved to Chicago, where he spent a year trading for the hedge-fund pioneer Frank Meyer before raising funds for a small hedge fund of his own. Wellington Financial Group, the fund’s original name, found early success and launched Griffin on his way.
In 2007, Griffin spun out the market-making business that Andresen had helped build into what became known as Citadel Securities. Its very creation was no small matter — none other than Jeff Bezos had tried and failed to build a business that handled retail-order flow when he worked for hedge fund D.E. Shaw. When Sequoia Capital took the first outside stake in the business in early 2022, it was valued at $22 billion.
Citadel Securities’ success has also occasionally attracted unwanted attention. Some, including Gary Gensler, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, are concerned that the financial markets are so reliant on a single firm for so much daily trading volume. Others worry that it gives Griffin’s hedge fund an unfair advantage.
“You have to get deep into the weeds to show they are co-beneficiaries of Ken and his vision and each other,” said Paul Rowady, a longtime analyst of market structure and the director of research at Alphacution, a research conservancy focusing on technology and the markets. “The thesis is that a parent has two kids, son A and son B, and the parent is claiming that those two kids have no relationship to each other. That’s bullshit.”
Things came to a head in 2021, when the retail brokerage Robinhood halted customer orders in GameStop, the video-game retailer whose stock had surged after individual investors banded together on Internet forums like Reddit. Citadel Securities buys customer orders from Robinhood, and conspiracy theorists immediately suspected Griffin’s influence. Websites like www.kengriffinlies.com sprung up.
Redditors, thank you so much for helping create the best pipeline we’ve ever had.Ken Griffin, on how the GameStop frenzy helped raise Citadel’s profile with potential hires.
The SEC later found no truth to the conspiracy theories. Yet the GameStop affair, in an odd twist, actually helped boost Citadel’s clout with potential recruits, Griffin said.
“For a lot of people this was a wake-up call that this firm Citadel is actually one of the most important players in the world’s financial markets,” he told me. “Redditors, thank you so much for helping create the best pipeline we’ve ever had.”
Success hasn’t hurt either. LCH Investments, a fund of hedge funds group, said Citadel made $50 billion over its lifetime for investors through 2021, second only to the $52.2 billion made by the hedge fund Bridgewater, which started 15 years earlier. When LCH updates its rankings for 2022, it is widely expected to show Citadel in first place.
Some of Citadel’s recent success is owed to the firm’s commodities team. Amid supply-chain constraints and a war in Ukraine that have made commodities markets volatile — and profitable for the right traders — more than 60% of Citadel’s investment gains in the second quarter of 2022 came from commodities.
That’s helped Citadel outpace other hedge funds that pursue similar strategies. The flagship strategies for Citadel competitors D.E. Shaw, Millennium, Point72, and Balyasny gained 24.7%, 12.4%, 10.3%, and 9.7% last year, respectively, short of the 38.1% put up by Citadel.
“If you can prove to him that you have a great business, distinctive insights, and a competitive advantage,” said Mark Stainton, a previous head of the commodities business who has since left Citadel on good terms, Griffin “is willing to give you a significant amount of capital.”
Commodities is one area where Griffin’s emerging role as a policy advisor has overlapped with his business interests. Citadel has been active in natural-gas markets, and in February 2022, Griffin and Niall Ferguson cowrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for Europe to reduce its reliance on Russian natural gas and for the US to increase its production.
Despite his success, Griffin said his wealth is just an outward sign of American exceptionalism — the experiment of government and self-determination that have defined this country for the past 245 years. Passionate about education, crime and fiscal discipline, Griffin worries now that something about what has made the country so great has been lost.
“We’ve lost sight of the opportunities people can enjoy in America in recent years,” Griffin said. To help counteract that, Griffin said he plans to give away the vast majority of his fortune during his lifetime.
“I’m going to give my money away in a way that I think has a real impact for our country,” he said. “I hope that the gifts I make will have an impact on America and the world for many years to come.”
In November 2021, in an attempt to connect with the country’s glorified past, Griffin bought one of the 13 original copies of the US Constitution. He told me that he first saw the document months before it was auctioned by Sotheby’s and knew he had to have it — a symbol of the moment in time when some of the finest minds in America came together to create a living constitution.
Griffin eventually paid $43 million for it, outbidding not only the few people in the world with more wealth than him, like Bezos or Elon Musk, but a collection of cryptocurrency enthusiasts who had pooled their money.
Last December, Griffin threw a party for Citadel and Citadel Securities employees and their families at the Disney World resort in Orlando to celebrate their combined success. Coldplay performed. Roughly 10,000 people, including 2,500 children, attended the three-day event in South Florida. Griffin footed the entire bill.
Add it all up, and Griffin’s life in the Magic City seems to agree with him. He spent the night before our interview eating Mexican food and playing card games with his kids, an experience that he wanted me to believe wasn’t all that different from that of other American families. I did get him to acknowledge one small difference.
“The house has a great view,” Griffin said. “I’m not going to be shy about that.”
Bradley Saacks and Alex Morrell contributed reporting to this article.