The chant went up as soon as Carl Lindner III walked on stage at the Woodward Theater and took his place next to the new logo for FC Cincinnati.
CL3! …CL3! …CL3!
He raised a glass of beer to toast the team. He shook hands with fans. He posed for selfies.
And the chant grew louder.
Lindner, FC Cincinnati’s majority owner, is one of Cincinnati’s wealthiest men. The heir to an insurance fortune, a philanthropist, adventurer, political donor, businessman, yacht owner and all-around Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous kind of guy.
Despite all that, the reception Lindner received at the logo unveiling was something new. It was the first time the intensely private Lindner had been, quite literally, thrust so far onto the public stage. He was the main attraction. The star of the show.
But Lindner’s journey to the stage that night was no different than the journey he has taken many times before. He was there because he was a true believer, convinced that with his influence, money and sheer force of will he could make a necessary thing happen.
In this case, his faith in an idea brought a Major League Soccer team to Cincinnati. In the past, that same faith encouraged him to expand his business, invest in the community and become a man whose calls are taken by presidents and senators.
Those who know him say that if Lindner believes in something, really believes in it, he is relentless in his pursuit.
When he was unsatisfied with the private school options for his kids in the 1980s, he built his own school. When he couldn’t find a church that celebrated his Christian faith the way he thought proper, he built his own church.
And when he wanted a pro soccer team in Cincinnati, he lined up the people and the money needed to make it happen.That team, FC Cincinnati, launches its first Major League Soccer season Saturday night in Seattle.
“He doesn’t lose his confidence or his cool,” said Jeff Berding, FC Cincinnati’s general manager. “He sees a problem as an obstacle that must be overcome.”
Lindner is the oldest son of Carl Lindner Jr., whose company American Financial Group made him a mega-millionaire who brought hundreds of jobs to Cincinnati and allowed him to become the largest benefactor the city had ever seen.
He didn’t tell his sons they had to go into the family business, but for Lindner III it was inevitable.
As a child, the younger Lindner remembers trips to the family-owned United Dairy Farmers ice cream labs for tastings to “make sure it was good.”
When he was older, Lindner went to work for his dad’s companies, scooping ice cream, cashing checks as a bank teller and repossessing cars.
After graduating from the University of Cincinnati in three and half years, he took a top job at American Financial. He and his brother, Craig Lindner, became co-CEOs of the company in 2005, while their father remained chairman of the company until his death in 2011.
Lindner may be CEO of a company with $7 billion in annual revenue, but he considers himself an entrepreneur. He’s willing to take chances on ideas he believes can grow the company, and he’s willing to put money on the line to do it.
That’s what happened in 1989, when Lindner met a young man who wanted to start a business aimed at passenger transportation insurance. He had a small team and an idea: Specialize in writing insurance for school buses, limousines and motor coaches.
Lindner thought the idea had merit and agreed to give him $375,000 for a 51 percent stake in the company. National Interstate was born. The company took its 49 percent share public in 2005, and Lindner quietly watched his investment grow.
In 2016, the Richfield, Ohio-based company was valued at $660 million. American Financial Group bought it for $330 million, and now it’s a subsidiary of AFG.
“He saw what it could be,” said Tony Mercurio, who has worked at National Interstate since almost the beginning and is now CEO of the company. “They never tried to manage the company. They brought the right balance of autonomy and oversight. We called Great American the big brother down the road on I-71.”
Lindner also puts his money behind causes and politicians he believes in.
His family has given $11 million to his alma mater, UC, where the business school is named after his dad. And as a lifelong Republican, Lindner is a regular contributor to GOP candidates, including at least $100,000 to two Super PACs that backed candidate Donald Trump.
A photo on Lindner’s office wall shows him putting on the lush greens of Pebble Beach Golf Links, with former President George W. Bush holding the flagstick for him.
In February 2017, Trump stopped by the wedding reception of Lindner’s son, Carl IV. “I know both families very, very well,” Trump said. “These are two great families.”
Lindner wears a faded black band on his wrist that says, “Jesus Christ is my victory.”
He says his faith guides everything he does.
It’s led to new schools and churches, and a long-ago effort to remove pornography from stores and hotels.
Lindner was an early supporter of the Citizens for Community Values, supporting the group’s mission of targeting pornography. The group was successful in removing it from some supermarket shelves, including from large chain stores owned by the Lindner family at the time.
A few years earlier, Lindner put his money and prestige behind a very different faith-based project.
In the mid-1980s, he was looking for the right private school for his kids. He wanted them to get not only a good education that included sports and the arts but also strong lessons about God and faith. He couldn’t find a school that did both to his satisfaction.
So, he set out to build his own.
He and some wealthy friends founded Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy in 1989, a suburban Symmes Township school. Lindner’s four children would attend. Later, Lindner created Armleder School in downtown Cincinnati for younger children.
Lindner felt the same way about where he worshipped. He wanted a place where people would feel comfortable exploring their faith. So he, his wife, Martha, and his brother Keith Lindner founded New Horizon Church in Newtown, where Lindner still attends Sunday services.
Friends say the Lindners wanted the church and schools to be open to all, not just the wealthy. They say that’s why he helped establish a $50 million endowment for students at Armleder.
“It’s been in the heart of the Lindner family from the beginning to make sure we were not another rich, white-kid school,” said Randy Brunk, who has led both schools for the past 16 years.
Christy and Jon Riley sent their son and daughter to Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, looking for a “solid Christian foundation before we sent them off to college and they left the bubble,” Christy Riley said.
At Cincinnati Hills, students take mission trips to local nursing homes on weekends or over breaks and have traveled to Chicago to tutor poor kids. They also get lessons in the Genesis creation story when evolution is taught.
“I wanted my kids to know that Christ loves them before anything,” Riley said. “This school gives them the opportunity to be surrounded with other kids who have the same foundation.”
Lindner said he wanted his school and his church to reflect his Christian beliefs, which influence most aspects of his daily life. He said he believes God is acting through him to accomplish worthwhile things, whether it’s building a church, a school or a soccer team.
He said he and Martha begin each day at 6 a.m. reading the Bible and praying. He said he prays for others and for himself.
“I am a fallible human being,” he said. “We all make a lot of mistakes. I let pride creep in and made some mistakes in my life.”
Though he won’t talk about those mistakes, he said his prayers help to center himself and let him focus on what matters.
Lately, he’s been praying a lot about soccer. Specifically, his investment in FC Cincinnati and the team’s new $250 million stadium.
The Lindners fell in love with soccer years ago, when their children played competitively.
At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, they stayed with family friends near Brazil’s soccer team. They met some of the best players in the world, like Real Madrid star Ronaldo.
“I kept an eye on the trajectory of soccer and liked what I saw,” Lindner said.
He already had a taste of being a major league team owner when his family bought the Cincinnati Reds in 1999 after owner Marge Schott was forced out.
Lindner saw the Reds purchase as a civic duty to stabilize the team and keep it in Cincinnati after the Schott years. He said he brought FC Cincinnati to town for the good of the city, too.
Not everyone agrees. While the team has a rabid fan base, Lindner and team owners were criticized by some over plans to locate the stadium in the West End, a historically black neighborhood where some residents felt neglected by the city.
“A soccer stadium in and of itself is not going to uplift this community,” said NAACP Vice President Joe Mallory. “If you want to really improve the community, there are many things they can do to be more impactful.
“The bottom line is they are a business and they are doing it to make money.”
Friends say Lindner has faith that professional soccer will benefit not just fans but the entire city, including the West End. FC Cincinnati is supporting youth sports in the neighborhood, has pledged to hire people who live near the stadium and is pouring $1 million into a host of amenities for the neighborhood, including arts programs.
“Carl saw an opportunity to bring a major sport to Cincinnati more for the benefit of Cincinnati than for the benefit of Carl himself,” said Scott Farmer, the CEO of Cintas, a friend of Lindners and a team owner. “Carl’s dad was this way, too. They love Cincinnati and they do things to improve it as a city. That is a family legacy.”
Lindner said he didn’t dive into pro soccer on a whim, or as a star-struck fan. He prayed on it, as he always does. And then he did his homework.
Major League Soccer was growing exponentially. From 2004 to 2015, the league doubled in size from 10 clubs to 20. Lindner also talked to longtime family friend and billionaire business owner Phil Anschutz, who co-founded Major League Soccer, as well as multiple teams in the League.
Anschutz connected Lindner with Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber.
At the same time Lindner was investigating the prospects of bringing a team to Cincinnati, former Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding was hatching a plan to do the same.
Berding was quietly looking for business partners. His St. Xavier High School classmate, George Joseph, of the Joseph Auto Group, was intrigued. They secured an option on a minor league team. They needed an ownership group, a management team and a place to play.
In January of 2015, their proposal to play soccer at Nippert Stadium made it to the University of Cincinnati trustees.
Lindner was one of those trustees. He called Berding the next day.
“What are you doing for lunch today?” Lindner asked Berding.
They dined in Lindner’s private dining room, off his office in Great American Tower. They put a plan together and, a few months later, went to see Garber in his New York office to find out if there really was a path to bringing Major League Soccer to Cincinnati.
Garber said there was.
“I’m all in,” Lindner said.
Joseph said Lindner, a friend, pushed from the start to build the team the right way, rather than on the cheap. “Carl set it up as if we were a top-tier club, with Major League standards,” Joseph said.
Since then, the club’s explosive growth has been noticed around the globe. Off the field, FC Cincinnati shattered all the existing USL attendance records during its inaugural 2016 season – and then broke its own records in each successive year.
On the field, FC Cincinnati was a rampant success. The team never missed the playoffs in the USL, advanced to the grand stage of the U.S. Open Cup semifinals in 2017, and won the USL Championship regular-season title in 2018.
“I saw something miraculous happen,” Lindner said. “I really have to thank God.”
Lindner wants everyone he works with to have faith, too. In their daily interactions. In their business ventures. And in the soccer team they’re building now in Cincinnati.
Last week, Lindner sat at his desk in his office on the 40th floor of Cincinnati’s highest skyscraper, which bears the name of his business, Great American Tower.
To get to it, visitors take Elevator G, which is the kind of private elevator where a person’s ears pop. It goes straight to the top.
Even on a dreary February, the view was spectacular. From here, he can see the Ohio River, Great American Ball Park, and Cincinnati’s iconic Roebling Suspension Bridge.
His jacket and slacks were impeccable, though his collar was open. No tie. A gold pin, bearing FC Cincinnati’s new logo, was on his lapel.
Lindner had the pin and sets of cuff links made for team owners as a Christmas present. The pin, real gold, is inscribed with 5-29-18, the day Cincinnati was awarded the expansion team. It also bears the numbers of a Bible verse, Ephesians 3:20.
The verse praises God for accomplishing “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”
“I wear it close to my heart as a reminder of my faith,” Lindner said.
Family: Married to Martha Lindner. Four children; daughter Blake Lindner Thompson, sons Carl Lindner IV, Christopher Lindner and Matthew Lindner. Five grandchildren
Home: Indian Hill
Job: Co-CEO, with his brother Craig Lindner of American Financial Group, a specialty insurer based in Cincinnati. The company was founded by their father, Carl Lindner Jr.
Hobbies: He’s a really good golfer and fisherman. The Lindner team, Seraphim, took home the top prize in the Sailfish 400, a Miami-based fishing tournament, in 2016 and 2017. Lindner was named top male angler the competition in 2016. He’s played the Pebble Beach Pro-Am the last several years and he golfs in tournaments with Martha Lindner.
Staying in shape: Swimming, Peloton
Travel: Homes in Key Largo. Pebble Beach and Colorado; corporate jet; yacht named Seraphim.
Fun facts: Lindner’s 60th Birthday was James Bond-themed, featuring a stuntman descending from a helicopter. He has bungy-jumped off a bridge in New Zealand; he was a producer of the 2016 slave-rebellion drama, Birth of a Nation, which won the Grand Jury prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Sharon Coolidge tells the stories you’ve never heard. Get more Cincinnati stories like this by subscribing to Cincinnati.com
Contributing: Alexander Coolidge and Patrick Brennan