Articles > People & Politics
Sharing the Wealth
Five Leaders Who Turned Business Success Into Community Service
When Pollin Plays, Washington Wins
Once a year, five-foot-eight-inch sports magnate Abe Pollin challenges Washington Wizards general manager Wes Unseld, who is six-foot-seven, to a three-point shootout. The winner gets $200 for his favorite charity. Three years ago, Pollin and Unseld played in the middle of the construction of downtown DC's MCI Center. The construction crew drew three-point lines on the cement pad and put up a temporary basket.
"I hit seven out of ten," Pollin says with a smile. "Wes almost died."
Abe Pollin has many accomplishments to his credit. He has built apartment houses, brought professional sports back into the heart of the city, and helped spark the revitalization of downtown DC. He has stacks of honors and awards for his civic and philanthropic contributions. But one of the things that tickles him most is that he beat Wes Unseld one-on-one.
Pollin has always been a sports fanatic. When he was eight, his family moved from Philadelphia to DC's First Street, Northwest, near Griffith Stadium. Every afternoon, young Abe paid his 25 cents and watched the Senators play baseball.
"Where I got this bug, I don't know," he says. Nobody else in the family had any interest in sports.
Pollin's dad started out as a heating and plumbing contractor. When Abe graduated from George Washington University in 1945, he went into the building business with his father and older brother. At age 35, Pollin started his own construction company. "I had to prove to myself that I could do it without my father," he says. He built his first apartment complex near the Pentagon and later built one of the first buildings around with a rooftop pool.
In 1964 Pollin and two partners bought the Baltimore Bullets. Four years later, he bought out his partners and decided to move the team closer to Washington. When he couldn't find an arena to rent, he built the Capital Centre (now US Airways Arena) in Landover.
The Cap Centre opened in 1973. It had the first big screens for showing instant replays and the first computerized ticket system. But to make the arena viable, Pollin needed another professional team. Even though he had never seen a hockey game, he bought an expansion franchise from the National Hockey League and created the Washington Capitals.
Several years ago, as gun violence in the area was on the increase, Pollin agreed with local mumblings that the basketball team needed a new name: "Bullets" was sending the wrong message. So the team became the Wizards. When he eventually decided his teams needed a new home, he set his sights on downtown DC.
"It was time for somebody to step forward," he says. He worked to put together the financing for the $200-million MCI Center. Since its opening in December 1998, the MCI Center has hosted 6 million people and more than 600 events.
Last year, Pollin sold some of his interest in the Wizards and the Caps. But he's still the biggest fan in the house. And when Abe Pollin wins, so does Washington.
James V. Kimsey
He Paved the Information Superhighway
Back in the early 1980s, Jim Kimsey invested in Control Video Corporation. It was a new company using the telephone system to download video games. He never expected to make communications history. Kimsey grew up in Washington, graduated from West Point, and did two tours in Vietnam before retiring from the military. "I knew I wasn't going to be happy as a staff officer pushing papers," he says. So Kimsey went into business, parlaying a $2,000 investment into ownership of real estate and several bars. When an old military buddy suggested that Kimsey invest in CVC, he didn't expect to get deeply involved with the company.
When CVC started hemorrhaging money, Kimsey realized he faced more than a financial loss. He was in the process of taking a bank holding company public, and the Securities and Exchange Commission wanted to know if Kimsey had ever been an officer of a corporation that went bankrupt.
Kimsey decided then and there that he would never answer "yes" to that question. "I really became motivated to find some way to keep CVC from going under," he says.
What he and his colleagues did was to shelve CVC and assign its assets and employees to a new company. Quantum Computer Services opened for business in 1985 with Jim Kimsey at the helm.
Kimsey planned to find a CEO to run Quantum. It took him ten years to hand over the reins. For most of that time the company—soon renamed America Online—teetered on the edge of failure.
America Online had so many false starts, dead ends, partnerships that fizzled, plans that failed, and near-death experiences that, according to one report, it became known as the "online cockroach."
Its competitors were backed by well-heeled corporate giants. IBM and Sears combined to create Prodigy. H&R Block owned CompuServe. How could AOL compete with the big boys?
The way Kimsey explains it, AOL's weak points proved to be its strengths: "We had to figure out how to get other people to carry our water. We didn't have any resources."
Kimsey gave every employee stock in the company so they'd have an interest in making it work. He kept honing in on services that real people—nongeeks—could use.
It worked. By the time Jim Kimsey became chair emeritus a few years back, AOL had become the powerhouse with 250,000 members and $40 million in annual revenues.
Jim Kimsey is now focusing his energies on philanthropy. His approach is unique. To support both the arts and kids, he not only donated $10 million to the Kennedy Center but endowed a chair for a tuba player in the National Symphony Orchestra and arranged for District fifth-graders to attend any event at the Kennedy Center free of charge.
"I'm just a local guy who hit the lottery," Kimsey says. Now he's letting his community share the wealth.
Riding the Retail Roller Coaster
For years, Irwin Zazulia prayed for rain on weekends. Zazulia was the president of Hecht's department stores. When the sun shines, a lot of people don't go shopping. The effect of outside events on retail success was brought home on Zazulia's first day at Hecht's. After a meteoric rise at Stern Brothers in New York, Zazulia had been coaxed to Washington by May Department Stores, the parent company of Hecht's. The Sunday before he started work here in August 1971 as a divisional merchandise manager, President Richard Nixon imposed wage-and-price controls. Zazulia arrived to find mostly empty stores.
Hecht's was fighting for customers even on its good days. Competition was fierce—the area had Garfinckel's, Woodward & Lothrop, Raleighs, and Kahn's as well as lots of specialty stores.
Zazulia says his experience at Stern's helped. Stern's was number five in the competitive New York market. "You learn to ride with the values and benefits of your stores," he says.
At Hecht's, that meant appealing to a broad range of customers, developing designer departments without shutting out buyers of moderately priced clothes, and sticking with home furnishings when other department stores dropped them.
Zazulia rose rapidly. By 1976 he was executive vice president for merchandising. He became vice chair in 1978 and was named president and chief executive officer in 1980. He retired this July.
During his tenure, Hecht's grew from 21 stores to 74 stores in six states and DC. Business surpassed $2.5 billion this year. Not a bad record for a boy from New Jersey who applied for his first retail job when he happened to pass a department store on his way to a job interview on Wall Street.
"As a retailer, he had complete command of the Hecht Company," Nautica chair Harvey Sanders told the Washington Post. "From the operations to the merchandise, to the fixtures and the advertising, Irwin was the one responsible for Hecht Company becoming the company it is today."
Irwin Zazulia developed more than the stores—he developed the talent to run them. Ten of Zazulia's executives at Hecht's have become heads of other May Store divisions.
Zazulia also strengthened his stores' involvement in the community, supporting the Lombardi Cancer Center, Second Genesis, the Lab School, the March of Dimes, the local chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the Washington Anti-Defamation League.
At Zazulia's retirement party, Frank Guzzetta, Hecht's new president, summed up the lessons he had learned from his boss: Take time before you embrace or abandon an idea. You can never have too many opinions. Details matter—the deeper you go, the more you know.
Irwin Zazulia still loves retailing. He can quote the prices of the most popular Arrow shirts he sold in men's haberdashery at Stern's in 1963—all-polyester "drip-dry" shirts sold for a dollar more than pure-cotton shirts. And until the day he retired, Zazulia could look at the sales numbers in any Hecht's store at 11 o'clock in the morning and predict how that store would do that day.
The business is always a roller coaster, Zazulia says, subject to outside influences, from weather to the whims of fashion. But most of the time, he says, it was a very sweet ride.
William C. Harris
On the Money for Crestar and the City
Bill Harris was a big man—at six-foot-six, he towered over colleagues and competitors. He also had a towering vision. Harris came to this area in 1984 to build a bank. To do that, he had to help build the region. Harris had come up from Richmond to head Crestar's first foray into Northern Virginia. When Crestar acquired DC's National Savings and Trust, he moved into a building at 15th Street and New York Avenue, across the street from the Treasury Department. He had a closet in the corner of his office demolished so he'd always have a view of the street below.
It was more than an aesthetic gesture. Harris realized that banking in Washington was undergoing a seismic shift. Local banks and bankers were being replaced by institutions with no ties to the area. The opportunities for Harris to be a financial and civic leader could not have been better.
"Right away he got involved in the community," his wife, Diane, recalls.
One of the first people Harris phoned was John R. Tydings, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "Bill recognized where he could help," says Tydings. "Whether it was helping the neighborhoods of DC … or his interest in the arts … or his civic commitment through his involvement with the Federal City Council or Leadership Washington."
Under Harris's leadership, Crestar expanded, acquiring 18 banks and thrifts. When Harris arrived, Crestar (now SunTrust) was number 12 in deposit market share. He moved it up to number 2.
Crestar also became a leader in granting loans to minorities and families whose incomes made other banks dismiss them as "bad risks."
Bill Harris grew up in Newport News. After graduating from William & Mary, he went to work in the shipyards. His greatest ambition was to earn $10,000 a year, his wife recalls. But Harris didn't stay long. After three weeks, he accepted an offer to be a trainee at Seaboard National Bank in Norfolk.
Harris went from Norfolk trainee to the senior banker in the nation's capital. When he died unexpectedly after an emergency appendectomy in 1996, he had become one of the best friends the city ever had. At his funeral, Father William J. Byron urged mourners to dedicate themselves to serving the community as Harris had.
"What a monumental tribute that would be to a man who was himself a genuine Washington monument," Byron said.
Minding Other Companies' Business
On one of her early assignments, Louise Lynch found herself in Paris teaching a French chef to cook hamburgers. Courtesy Associates had been hired by international conglomerate ITT to manage its special events at the Paris Air Show. Courtesy arranged to feature American food at ITT's "hospitality chalet."
Despite the crowd of hungry guests with empty plates, the French chef insisted on grilling one burger at a time. Lynch finally persuaded him that his culinary standards would not be compromised if he grilled them by the dozen.
It was all in a day's work for Louise Lynch. Since she joined Courtesy Associates in 1963, she's been managing conferences, special events, travel, and lots of other services for trade associations and other organizations. She's staged everything from an inaugural-parade party to a scientific conference on high blood pressure.
The irony of Lynch's business is that the better she does her job, the fewer people know of her work. Courtesy Associates is the unseen hand that makes events run smoothly.
Lynch learned her trade from the firm's founder, Jane Marilley, a Washington Business Hall of Fame honoree in 1991.
Lynch came to Washington from Toledo hoping to find a job with the federal government. Marilley, a friend of her family, offered Lynch a job with Courtesy Associates. The company, Marilley explained, did "anything that clients didn't want to do themselves."
Lynch began running conferences and special events. By 1973 she was a vice president. When Marilley died in 1976, Lynch became president.
Under her leadership, Courtesy's annual revenues doubled, to more than $15 million. The company's focus also changed—moving away from business services for individuals to conference and event planning for associations and federal agencies.
While she was growing Courtesy Associates, Louise Lynch also brought boundless energy to the Washington business and nonprofit communities. She has served on more than 40 boards and received dozens of honors, including being named Man of the Year by the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
Last April, Lynch became chair emeritus of Courtesy Associates as it was being acquired by Smith, Bucklin & Associates, one of the world's largest association-management firms.
Courtesy will still be Courtesy, Lynch says. Conferences and meetings that bring people together will never be replaced by high-tech communications networks, she believes.
"There is no substitute for people meeting with people," she says. "That's what our business is built on."
BUSINESS HALL OF FAME
Norman R. Augustine
Robert C. Baker
James G. Banks
Sister M. Majella Berg
Donald S. Bittinger
Earle Palmer Brown
Elizabeth Pfohl Campbell
Oliver T. Carr
Nehemiah and Israel Cohen
Edwin I. Colodny
Dr. Lloyd H. Elliott
George M. Ferris Sr.
Robert V. Fleming
Theodore R. Hagans Jr.
stephen d. harlan
Sidney L. Hechinger
Christian Heurich Sr.
Edwin T. Holland
George W. Johnson
Jane E. Marilley
J. Willard Marriott
David O. Maxwell
Walter F. McArdle
William G. McGowan
Jesse H. Mitchell
Allen H. Neuharth
Thornton W. Owen
Flaxie M. Pinkett
Thomas G. Pownall
Joseph H. Riley
Benjamin T. Rome
Bernard Francis Saul
Catherine Filene Shouse Joan Head Sisco
Charles E. Smith
John D. StewarT
W. Reid Thompson
Julia M. Walsh
Walter E. Washington
Earle C. Williams
Edward Bennett Williams
Robert H.. Zalokar