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Tech’s Godfather
Steve Case and AOL are the marquee names of Washington’s digital age. But Mario Morino helped launch the region’s tech industry and became the man to see. By Drew Lindsay
Comments () | Published January 1, 2009

Mario Morino’s 40 years in Washington could be scripted as a two-act play. The first act sees a young man, the son of a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman in Cleveland, come to Washington, launch a start-up company, and become a tech tycoon. In the second act, the protagonist, having retired at 49, plunges into local civic life and spurs new-money moguls to become activist philanthropists.

The play would run off-Broadway because its star is not well known. Steve Case, Jim Kimsey, Ted Leonsis, and the others who led AOL are the marquee names of Washington’s 1990s rise as a tech center. But Morino is the original, the man known as the godfather of Washington’s tech industry.

Morino came to Washington in 1967 as part of a Navy technology program. He and others in the program began moonlighting to create a start-up business. Computers at the time were big and expensive; Morino’s outfit managed systems in which businesses or agencies shared time on a single mainframe, accessing it via phones and a typewriter console.

A recession in the early 1970s kneecapped Morino’s company and others, but he rebounded in 1973 to start a business that developed software for mainframes. That company—called Morino Associates though it was founded with Morino’s mentor, info-tech pioneer Bill Witzel—grew and then merged in the 1980s to become Legent, one of the area’s few equity tech companies. In 1995, Legent was sold for $1.7 billion—at the time the largest software deal in history.

Morino retired from Legent in 1992, three years before its sale, and became champion of the area’s tech sector. Declaring that Washington would become the world’s digital capital, he threw himself into efforts to make that a reality.

Worth more than $150 million, Morino also dove into the philanthropic world. Recruiting the AOL crowd and other tech moguls such as Mark Warner and Raul Fernandez (founder of Proxicom), he launched Venture Philanthropy Partners, which uses the principles of venture-capital funding to identify entrepreneurial nonprofits and back their growth.

Today Morino splits his time between Washington and his hometown of Cleveland, where his wife, Dana Sandberg Morino, and three teenage children live.

How did your first business start?

There were 187 of us in that Navy technology program, and it was a remarkable base of talent. Each of us had four years in the computer field.

Maybe 30 of us decided to create a company on the side. We were called “Morino’s marauders.” We’d put a case of beer on our shoulders, go in, and work all night.

What was taking place in Washington from 1967 through 1971 was the original tech bubble. DC was a hotbed for computer time sharing. Wisconsin Avenue was lined with time-sharing companies. Technology was just getting infused in the government, so the government became this huge spawning base.

The exact same thing happened then as in the 1990s but on a smaller scale. The valuations of companies went off the charts—ridiculous valuations. And then the recession hit, a big one that parallels what we’re seeing today. By 1971, the companies were selling for pennies on the dollar. We’d go down the hallways and joke about which door would be padlocked next.

At the start, I put $1,000 of my own money into the company. I went to my mother and brother and got money—maybe $5,000. We lost it all. It was probably the most valuable loss I ever had because it sensitized me to how stock markets function and how valuations are done. I got burned at a low cost, but a lot of people got burned for a lot.

What was the fallout for the area?

It sent a shudder up the spines of people in a region that was already conservative. You had this enormous talent base in technology, but it migrated to the government-contracting side. You didn’t see the growth in the product market that you saw in Silicon Valley. Product work sublimated itself to the government-contracting model for almost 20 years, through the 1970s and 1980s.

What government-contracting companies were key to this second wave of technology?

Earle Williams did phenomenal work with BDM. People like Dan Bannister at DynCorp, John Puente at Digital Communications, Jack London at CACI, Ed Bersoff at BTG—they don’t get credit for that wave. The media hung labels, often unjustly, on these firms and their leaders—“Beltway bandits” and other not-so-nice terms. In reality, these firms and many others—Lockheed Martin, SRA, and more—have played vital roles in designing, implementing, and running large technology systems for the federal government—from monitoring “dirty water” for the EPA to doing the student-loan program for Sallie Mae.

And these companies had a hand in driving innovation. The experience they gained in building these systems for the government gave them the understanding to create new intellectual property that in turn created the first commercial databases, search engines, network managers, and on and on. People didn’t realize that the government work was spinning off a lot of commercial activity.

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 01/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles