Tony Petrello's Inspired Path to Philanthropy

Tony Petrello’s Inspired Path to Philanthropy


Hardships can sometimes produce miracles, and the neurological disorder that Tony and Cynthia Petrello’s baby daughter suffers from is an inspiration to the family. Born at 24 weeks when she weighed only one and a quarter pounds, she gives her philanthropic parents the motivation to sponsor brain research for children. The Petrellos believe that their child has a greater purpose than others who have fewer challenges, and they take inspiration from seeing her small achievements that most parents take for granted in their children.

Finding Everything Bigger in Texas

Texas has a reputation for having the biggest and best of everything, and the advances at the state-of-the-art medical facilities there seem to confirm it. The energy culture that thrives on producing oil and gas creates extraordinarily wealthy people, many of whom are equally generous to the causes that they support. Houston’s Texas Medical Center (TMC), the largest center in the world for treating the sick, demonstrates the commitment by the state to have the biggest and best of everything.

The 52 members of the institution are among the world’s most famous, and people who need the best medical care seem to find their way there. In an average year, TMC performs surgeries for 350,000 of the 7.1 million patients who seek help. Not surprisingly, donations from the wealthiest Americans arrive in amounts that require seven figures to describe them. The capital campaign gathered gifts from more than 630,000 individuals, including contributions of at least $1 million from 127 donors.

Coping with Frustration

Until they ran into the nearly impossible challenges of finding treatment for their severely disabled daughter, both Tony and Cynthia had succeeded in every endeavor that they chose. She remembers the days when they were “able to fix things.” A practice of setting a goal and achieving it was an expected outcome of everything that they did. They have learned from hard experience that having a child who has a neurological disorder is “very confusing for parents.” Tony expressed his frustration with the lack of brain research for children and decided to convert the challenges into opportunities.

Starting with Dedication to a Job

As the CEO of Nabors Industries, Tony Petrello runs the largest land-based drilling company in the world. Oil companies hire his firm to drill the gas and oil wells that produce the energy to run industries around the world. His preparation for the job started by tackling a tough course of study: two mathematics degrees from Yale and a Harvard. A native of Newark, he quickly adapted to his life in Houston in 1991 by working “six or seven days” of every week for the first five years. His wife, a former New York actress, focused on her career as well, limiting their contacts to their close personal friends.

Changing Focus

With the birth of baby Carena in 1997, everything changed for Anthony and Cynthia Petrello. Born with a disorder that prevents an adequate supply of oxygen to the brain of premature infants, she underwent numerous operations to save her heart and sight functions. The condition that she faces for the rest of her life is cerebral palsy, and Tony describes the experience as the “turning point” that changed everything in their lives. Instead of having the baby mathematician that he anticipated or the dancer that his wife thought was coming, they had to “adjust our expectations,” he stated.

Acceptance of the diagnosis for their baby daughter helped the Petrellos revise their priorities. Tony grew philosophical as he chose to “make a difference” in the short time that earth provides to each person. A natural problem-solver, Tony decided to put his skills to work to understand what had happened to baby Carena. His goal was to find out if any treatments existed that may offer hope to parents of children like Carena. His inquiries at a prestigious hospital in the east in 2000 offered nothing but discouragement and a lack of understanding.

Assessing the Situation

After examining the status of on-going research for childhood neurological diseases, Tony Petrello found that very little existed. The deficit of information about the “DNA arithmetic” confounded his mathematical approach to problem-solving. With a range of severity that includes mild disorders such as ADHD as well as severe cases of Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, the condition required more investigation in Petrello’s opinion. He found the lack of knowledge “astounding.”

The help that he was looking for came from some like-minded individuals at the Texas Children’s Hospital. He envisioned an institution that had the potential to explore the causes of children’s neurological conditions, and he backed it up by committing $7 million to the project in 2006. He sees the results of his efforts taking shape as a center that can lead the way to change the outcomes for millions of children. He understands that it may not help Carena, but “we have to do something.”

Staying True to Form

With the same self-effacing attitude that his freshman roommate remembers clearly, Petrello attributes his phenomenal success to luck. The former roommate, now a reporter for the Daily Beast, wanted to contact him by phone to tease him about becoming the top paid CEO in the country. He was unavailable by phone, but he promptly sent the reporter an email to address the question. He summed up his success by ranking luck more highly than intelligence, and he affirmed it by saying that he has experienced great fortune in his work.

While Petrello has no experience in working on an oil rig, he runs a company that owns about 500 of them in 25 countries. As the enterprise that owns more land-based drilling rigs than any other, Nabors does well in the expanding and highly successful shale-fracking business. Petrello’s expertise found expression in managing the corporation’s taxes that helped the former CEO make decisions about offshoring. Petrello’s leadership in the position has resulted in a 180 percent increase in the company’s share price.

His generous philanthropy extends to his alma mater where he has established an endowment for a prize in honor of a beloved math professor. With an initial gift of $150,000 and a promise to match contributions from others up to another $150,000, he hopes the total amount for the endowment prize can reach $450,000.

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