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Secrets of Success
Five Washington Business Leaders Who Went After Opportunities to Work Their Way to the Top By Leslie Milk
Comments () | Published October 1, 2001

Would-be tycoons, like dieters, often believe in magic. They are waiting for the lucky break, the sudden inspiration, the "eureka" moment. d The business leaders being inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame this year all say that the secret of their success is more mundane. Yes, they were in the right place at the right time and recognized opportunities others might have missed. But what took them to the top was just plain hard work. d High-tech pioneer Mario Morino was a kind of "overnight" success--he started his first company at night while he was a full-time E-4 in the Navy. As president of Gannett Corporation, John Curley spent hours studying nationwide economic trends as well as the contents and the balance sheets of the company's media outlets. Roger Blunt had to circumvent subtle discrimination to build his construction business. When the firm faltered, he started over and rebuilt it. d Wilhelmina Holladay works tirelessly to keep her creation, the National Museum for Women in the Arts, in good shape without a major endowment or federal funds. d John T. "Til" Hazel Jr. plowed fields on the family farm in Arlington and then plowed through hundreds of dusty deed records before gaining success as a Northern Virginia developer. d The Washington Business Hall of Fame was created in 1988 by Junior Achievement of the National Capital Area in partnership with the Greater Washington Board of Trade and The Washingtonian. d Junior Achievement sent about 650 business volunteers into 692 area classrooms last year to build students' business literacy. JA volunteers serve as role models for more than 16,000 kids from kindergarten through 12th grade. d The 2001 laureates will be inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on November 8. d They prove that determination--not magic--is still the secret of success.

MARIO MORINO: Leading the Way forInternet Entrepreneurs

Mario Morino knows only one way to live--at double time. As a poor kid in Cleveland, he knew he would have to work his way through college. But part-time jobs paid peanuts when he graduated from high school in 1962. Morino decided to attend college full-time and also get a full-time job.

His timing couldn't have been better. General Motors, he recalls, had just decided to "hire a kid from the street and teach him the new computer technology." Mario Morino became that kid.

Years later, he was about to start his PhD when all graduate-student draft deferments were canceled because of the war in Vietnam. Morino was recruited by the Navy to be part of its new technology program. Morino became an instant noncommissioned officer and joined a team of topflight young technologists. It didn't take long for him to convince some of his colleagues to start a software company in their spare time.

Morino worked all day at naval headquarters, then spent 5 PM to midnight working at the company.

Soon after, Morino met Bill Witzel, a dynamo who, according to techie folklore, was the first software salesman in America. In 1973 Morino and Witzel started Morino Associates to create software for big mainframe computers that were then the state of the art. The men invested $600 each.

Morino says he soon learned that his small company had to grow to survive and that it wasn't enough to develop good software if the client didn't know how to use it. Teaching customers to manage technology became a company hallmark.

Morino Associates went public in 1986, then merged with another software company to become the Legent Corporation. Between 1989 and 1992, Legent acquired other tech firms and went from $125 million in sales to about $500 million.

"I had to keep working harder because I knew people out there were brighter," Morino says.

In 1992 he retired from Legent, which Computer Associates acquired in 1995. He is now a special partner in General Atlantic Partners, a private equity-investment firm.

Morino didn't want to rest on his laurels; he doesn't rest, period. In the 1990s he became the godfather of area Internet entrepreneurs, coaching young start-ups.

In 1994 he created the Morino Institute. Its Reston headquarters, nicknamed "Planet Mario," serves as a kind of Internet incubator for tech start-ups. It also provides resources and tools to get community groups plugged in to the Internet. The next year he launched the Potomac KnowledgeWay, a nonprofit organization created to boost the region's role as a high-tech center.

Morino chairs Venture Philanthropy Partners and serves on the boards of the Community Foundation, the Brookings Institution, and other nonprofits.

Equally important, he has encouraged other Northern Virginia entrepreneurs to follow his philanthropic lead and get involved in the Washington community.

"We have a remarkable opportunity to effect change," he says.

ROGER R. BLUNT: Building From the Ground Up

When Roger Blunt gave up the security of an Army career for the uncertainty of business, he was fulfilling a lifelong dream. "When I was growing up in East Providence, Rhode Island, I believed that my destiny would be to own my own business," he says.

Blunt found his opportunity with a Midwestern asphalt-road-building company that wanted to expand into the Washington area. In 1971 he invested his savings in Tyroc Construction and became president and owner of 51 percent of the stock in the Washington company.

Blunt built Tyroc and its successor, Essex Construction, into one of the most successful minority-owned construction companies. Essex Construction does $10 to $15 million in business annually, principally renovating office buildings and multifamily housing developments and building religious and health-care facilities for senior citizens in the Baltimore-Washington area.

But Roger Blunt's road to success was not a smooth one. At one point, he needed a special sand that the District of Columbia government required for construction projects. Blunt sent a truck to one nearby supplier to pick up a load.

The truck came back empty. The supplier said he "had all the business he could handle" and refused Blunt's order. Although Blunt was certain the sand man was discriminating because of race, he simply outmaneuvered him and found another supplier.

Tyroc ran into financial problems in the economic turndown of the early 1980s and filed for reorganization in 1986. Blunt started over, building a new business, Essex, while salvaging the old one. Today both are part of Blunt Enterprises. His uphill battle was fought in the spotlight: Blunt was president-elect of the Greater Washington Board of Trade when Tyroc tumbled. He resigned from the board to concentrate on his business.

Blunt believes he had two advantages during the tough times. One was his wife, Derrie, his partner in business as well as in life. The other was his military training: As a West Point graduate and an Army veteran, he knew how to work under fire.

After enlisting in the Army during the Korean War, Blunt was one of a handful of GIs to win appointment to the military academy from the ranks. He graduated high enough in his West Point class to get his first-choice assignment. The budding builder chose the Army Corps of Engineers.

In recent years, Blunt has been called on to share his leadership skills as chairman of the national advisory committee to the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities and as a lecturer on the subject of leadership.

"You have to light a fire, share your infectious enthusiasm with others, and people will jump aboard," he tells audiences.

Jonathan Blunt, a son of Roger and Derrie's, has joined Essex as a vice president and heir apparent. But Roger Blunt is still the heart and soul of the company. The fire he lit shows no sign of going out.

JOHN J. CURLEY: Good News for a Builder of Journalism

When John Curley took over Gannett Company from Al Neuharth in 1986, he inherited a flagship national newspaper drowning in red ink and a far-flung media empire that had grown like Topsy.

A year later, Curley announced that USA Today was in the black--showing its first monthly profit six months earlier than Curley himself had projected. And both USA Today and Gannett's other papers were improving, thanks to an infusion of talent.

"The industry was changing. Advertisers had more choices. We had to make sure USA Today was a stronger news operation," Curley says.

"Again and again he has insisted we have to make the newspapers better," USA Today editor Peter Pritchard said of Curley in 1990. "He really believes quality is the key to circulation."

Gannett thrived under Curley's "speak softly and carry a good story" leadership. During the years he was CEO, Gannett stock value increased 346 percent; annual revenue rose from $2.8 billion in 1986 to $6.2 billion in 2000. Circulation of Gannett's daily papers grew by more than a million.

Pretty good for a small-town Pennsylvania boy who started his journalism career at age 13 covering sports for the Easton Express. He earned 12 cents an inch for his words--and the occasional enmity of athletes.

"If somebody had a good game, I cited them. If they had a bad game, I cited them," he says.

By the time he left Easton for Dickinson College, Curley was hooked on the news business. He edited the college paper, got a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, and went to work for the Associated Press. After stints at a string of small New Jersey papers, Curley joined Gannett in 1969 as suburban editor of the Rochester Times-Union.

At Gannett, Curley's career went into overdrive. By 1980 he had been editor and publisher of papers in New Jersey and Delaware and was tapped to replace Jack Germond as Washington bureau chief and general manager of Gannett News Service.

Curley focused on stories of national interest. Under his leadership, Gannett became the first news service to win a Pulitzer Prize--for an exposé of a financial scandal involving an order of Catholic monks.

Curley's "beyond the Beltway" focus shaped USA Today when he became its first editor in 1982. "It had to be a paper that readers west of the Hudson related to," Curley says.

While the journalism elite scoffed, Curley and company created a paper that reported "what worked" as well as what didn't and told stories with color photos and striking graphics. Not only did the formula work for Gannett, it has been copied by many of the newspapers that once scorned it.

John Curley retired as chairman of Gannett on January 31. Now he's teaching seminars on leadership in journalism at Dickinson College and Pennsylvania State University.

"As a leader you get to set the tone, set the vision," he tells students. "Don't get bogged down in doing people's jobs--just make sure that they are all pulling in the same direction."

When John Curley led Gannett, the direction was always up.

JOHN T. HAZEL JR.: The Visionary Who Reshaped Northern Virginia

When John Tilghman Hazel Jr. left the Army and the judge advocate general's office in 1957, his first civilian job was with a law firm in his hometown of Arlington. Two days after he started, the managing partner took Hazel aside and asked whether he wanted to move to the firm's fledgling office out in the countryside. "There's a future in Fairfax," the older lawyer said.

There was indeed a future in Fairfax--and Til Hazel became the man who shaped it.

Hazel's law firm had been hired to acquire the land to build the Washington Beltway. He became an expert on zoning, acquisition, and eminent domain. Later Hazel steered Ted Lerner through the legal maze so the developer could build Tysons Corner Center and the Tysons II shopping, office, and hotel complex.

In 1961 Hazel left the law firm. He soon became a county judge and, in his spare time, practiced zoning law. Hazel realized that Northern Virginia was changing, and he wanted to be a player, not an observer.

"A blind man could see the potential," Hazel says. "Fairfax was the frontier. It was open to ideas."

But Hazel saw possibilities that others couldn't and--more important--was able to turn them into bricks and mortar.

In 1972 he linked up with Milton V. Peterson and began developing communities like Burke Centre and Franklin Farm. By 1989 it was estimated that one of every six Fairfax residents lived on land that Hazel/Peterson developed. The company also built Fair Lakes, a 35-building office complex.

Til Hazel did more than build places for Virginians to live and work--he also built the institutions that made people enjoy living there.

"His imagination is what drove development--not just land development but the cultural development of the region as well," says George Johnson, former president of George Mason University. Hazel was instrumental in acquiring land for the George Mason campus and marshaling the Northern Virginia business community to support the university's growth. He played key roles in the creation of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the Fairfax Symphony, and other community institutions.

Hazel also recognized the importance of crossing the Potomac to build regional cooperation. "It's a river, not an ocean," he notes. Hazel was the first Northern Virginian to serve as president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which he still serves as a director.

Joel Garreau, author of the book Edge City, credits Til Hazel with doing "more to shape the Washington area than any man since Pierre L'Enfant." Garreau notes that the growth of Northern Virginia has vastly outpaced that of the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland over the past 20 years. Hazel built the foundation for that growth, according to Garreau.

Hazel is characteristically self-effacing. "I was fortunate to arrive in the world just as Washington was becoming the place to come," he says. "We've had a great ride."

WILHELMINA HOLLADAY: An Entrepreneur for Women's Art

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay was not an art expert when she created the first museum dedicated to women in the arts. Nor was she a leader in the women's movement. Holladay was a collector who discovered that female artists had not been recognized in the history books or on museum walls--and decided to do something about it.

"Billie" Holladay and her husband, Wallace, had collected more than 500 works by women dating back to the Renaissance. Holladay realized that these were the seeds from which a museum could grow.

In 1982, she found a building on New York Avenue in downtown DC. It was in terrible shape, and the neighborhood was so dangerous that police advised Holladay not to let her staff leave the building without an escort.

"I don't scare easily," Holladay says. She bought the building for the bargain price of $5 million. When she applied for a renovation loan, the bank assessed the building at $12 million.

From the beginning, Holladay approached building the institution with an entrepreneurial spirit. To keep the museum from going into the red, she says, "we knew we had to have a decent party facility, a good gift shop, and a large membership both nationally and internationally."

The museum, which opened in 1987, is one of the few in Washington with a full catering kitchen. Its marble balustrades and crystal chandeliers serve as backdrop for some of the city's most elegant social events. The museum has more than 35,000 members, making it one of the world's top 10 percent of museums in membership.

A tireless fundraiser, Holladay has forged alliances with states and embassies to produce shows featuring works from locales around the globe. Her latest coup: an exhibit of work by female artists from the Hermitage in Russia, scheduled for 2003.

The museum has expanded into the building next door and developed the world's most comprehensive archival library and research center on women in the arts and an extensive educational program.

Many of its more than 150 shows have gained worldwide attention, among them two recent exhibits featuring the work of Lion King designer/director Julie Taymor and painter Grandma Moses.

What's more, the museum has stayed on budget since the day it opened.

Where did she gain her management expertise? Through volunteering, Holladay says. She was president of the Langley School when her children were students there, and she chaired the board of Adams National Bank. She also credits her husband's counsel and support. "I could never have done it without him," she says.

Billie Holladay never considered putting her name on the museum she created. Her greatest reward is feeling a part of the creative process.

"When I see a work of art, it awes me. I want to share it. Art is one thing everybody can join together to applaud." *

Past Honorees

NORMAN R. AUGUSTINE

ROBERT C. BAKER

JAMES G. BANKS

DANIEL BANNISTER

SISTER M. MAJELLA BERG

DONALD S. BITTINGER

EARLE PALMER BROWN

MORRIS CAFRITZ

WILLIAM CALOMIRIS

ELIZABETH PFOHL CAMPBELL

OLIVER T. CARR JR.

NEHEMIAH AND ISRAEL COHEN

EDWIN I. COLODNY

DR. LLOYD H. ELLIOTT

GEORGE M. FERRIS SR.

ROBERT V. FLEMING

IRVING GOLDSTEIN

KATHARINE GRAHAM

THEODORE R. HAGANS JR.

STEPHEN D. HARLAN

WILLIAM HARPS

WILLIAM C. HARRIS

SIDNEY L. HECHINGER

CHRISTIAN HEURICH SR.

EDWIN T. HOLLAND

GEORGE W. JOHNSON

CLIFFORD KENDALL

JAMES V. KIMSEY

WILLARD M. KIPLINGER

DAVID LLOYD KREEGER

JOHN A. LANKFORD

R. ROBERT LINOWES

LOUISE LYNCH

JANE E. MARILLEY

J. WILLARD MARRIOTT

DAVID O. MAXWELL

WALTER F. MCARDLE

WILLIAM G. MCGOWAN

EUGENE MEYER

JESSE H. MITCHELL

ALLEN H. NEUHARTH

THORNTON W. OWEN

FLAXIE M. PINKETT

ABE POLLIN

THOMAS G. POWNALL

COLEMAN RAPHAEL

JOSEPH H. RILEY

BENJAMIN T. ROME

BERNARD FRANCIS SAUL

IVAN SELIN

FOSTER SHANNON

CATHERINE FILENE SHOUSEJEAN HEAD SISCO

CHARLES E. SMITH

JOHN D. STEWART

W. REID THOMPSON

CARMEN TURNER

JULIA M. WALSH

WALTER E. WASHINGTON

EARLE C. WILLIAMS

EDWARD BENNETT WILLIAMS

ROBERT H.. ZALOKAR

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