Washingtonian Business Hall of Fame

By: Leslie Milk

Listen to Milt Peterson talk about the beauty of National Harbor or Don Graham explain the challenges of a newspaper in the 21st century or Linda Rabbitt preach the gospel of economic independence for women, and one thing is clear—they are true believers. Their fervor isn’t tempered by financial setbacks or skeptics. Their confidence in their companies and their visions has been critical to their success—and to the area’s economic growth.

Twenty years ago, The Washingtonian, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and Junior Achievement of the National Capital Area expressed confidence in the area’s economy by founding the Washington Business Hall of Fame. The five business leaders who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Hilton Washington on Tuesday, December 2, are evidence that Washington continues to be a great place to do business.

The Hall of Fame dinner benefits Junior Achievement and its efforts to teach area kids about business, entrepreneurship, and personal finance. Last year JA sent 1,871 volunteers into 1,321 classrooms and engaged more than 38,000 students from kindergarten through high school.

For more information about the Hall of Fame dinner, contact Junior Achievement at 202-296-1200.

Donald Graham

Media powerhouse for the 21st century

Don Graham had two tough acts to follow when he took over as CEO of the Washington Post Company—his grandfather Eugene Meyer, who bought the Post at a bankruptcy sale in 1933, and his mother, Katharine Graham, who made the paper into a world-renowned institution and the cornerstone of a media empire.

As a young man, Graham seemed more heir reluctant than heir apparent. He was president of the Harvard Crimson newspaper but, after graduation in 1966, volunteered for the military and served in Vietnam. When he returned to Washington, he joined the DC police department.

Both experiences gave Graham insights into the city and the world that he couldn’t get from the vantage point of Harvard or the Post.

He joined the family business as a reporter in 1971, then worked in both news and business at the Post and the Post Company–owned Newsweek. He took his apprenticeship seriously—from circulation trainee to general manager. “The one good thing about being the publisher’s son,” he once said, “is that you can’t possibly be as dumb as people think you are.”

Graham became publisher of the Post in 1979, CEO of the Washington Post Company in 1991, and chair in 1993.

His broad experience and forward thinking have served the company well. Although he grew up in a print environment, he saw the importance of the Internet and invested in it long before other publishers.

His mother bought Kaplan when it was a modest operation preparing high-school students for college-entrance exams. Don Graham has nurtured the company as it has grown into a lifelong-education giant with 80,000 students enrolled in the online Kaplan University alone. “Kaplan is more than one half of our income and growing fast,” Graham says.

But at heart, the Washington Post Company remains a media company. “We’ve got room in front of us,” Graham believes. He still thinks news is a great business for this area because Washington has the best-educated population of any big city.

The Post Company has an ongoing commitment to improving local education. “The thing I’m proudest of is that we went to Congress to get funds to enable DC kids in every public and charter school to pay in-state tuition rates at any public college nationwide,” Graham says. And if they need help getting there? Kaplan offers free SAT prep for disadvantaged students.

Linda Rabbitt

Building success for women in business

Nobody knows better than Linda Rabbitt that timing isn’t everything. She started her construction business in 1989—“about 20 minutes before the recession,” she says.

The former history teacher from Michigan was doing marketing and public relations at Peat Marwick in the early 1980s when she saw construction booming all over Washington. She was a single mother raising two daughters, and the lure of the concrete gold rush was too powerful to pass up.

In 1985, Rabbitt was asked by a friend to join forces and start a construction company. The business did better than the partnership. She cashed in her stock, regrouped, and returned to the construction business just in time to watch the building bubble burst. The downturn had an upside for Rabbitt’s new company, Rand Construction. Her overhead was small, she could take on small jobs, and because she specialized in renovations and tenant build-outs, she didn’t have to invest in heavy equipment.

Rand turned out to be the little company that could. In 1996, it had $20 million in sales; a decade later, revenues had increased to more than $200 million. It’s the country’s 38th-largest woman-owned business. Clients have included General Dynamics, the Federal Reserve, and Conservation International. Rand has won more than 100 building and craftsmanship awards. “A woman-owned business needs credibility,” Rabbitt says. “The awards give us credibility.”

Rand Construction was selected by The Washingtonian as a Great Place to Work in 2007. Often when Rand makes a presentation to a prospective client, Rabbitt lets a project superintendent do the talking. She believes that good work should be recognized and rewarded.

She also recognizes the importance of connecting with the wider business community and helping other women. Rabbitt has been chair of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, president of the International Women’s Forum, and a leader in so many other groups that her husband once threatened to enroll her in “just say no” school.

A former Washingtonian of the Year, Rabbitt received the Washington Women of Genius Award from Trinity College for her “courage, excellence, and leadership.” She demonstrated that courage when she developed breast cancer in 2000. Even before she recovered, she was working with the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and the National Breast Cancer Coalition. Rand Construction built the coalition’s new offices pro bono.

Says Rabbitt: “My father taught me to leave things better than I found them.”

Mandell Ourisman

A driving force in the local economy

Mandy Ourisman’s first interest in his father’s Chevrolet dealership had nothing to do with business. He couldn’t wait until he turned 16 so he could speed around in one of the cars.

In 1921, at age 21, his father, Benjamin, had started the company at Sixth and H streets, Northeast. Unlike Fords, Chevys came in different colors, and there were five models. The economy-minded could buy a 490 roadster for $795 including windshield, speedometer, and electric horn.

The business was successful from the start. In 1941, it was the country’s largest dealership. After college and six weeks of General Motors school, Mandy Ourisman joined his father’s operation. He started out in the parts department and worked his way up, convinced he could teach his father a thing or two about modern management. But he was unprepared for his father’s death from cancer at 55. Suddenly the 28-year-old was in charge.

“I realized I didn’t know quite as much as I thought,” he says. “But fear was overcome by a determination to succeed.”

Succeed he did—Ourisman now has 24 franchises in 17 locations. With two sons and one stepson in the business, he had to expand: “It’s hard to keep good managers. If there were three sons in one showroom, good people would think they had no chance for growth in the company.”

His son John Ourisman, now president of the company, says his father taught him “to be a man of my word.” Personal integrity “sets the standard that defines the relationships with our customers, who have always been the lifeblood of our business,” he says.

Mandy Ourisman has been a major supporter of the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the Betty Lou Ourisman Breast Health Center at Georgetown University, named for his late wife, who died of breast cancer. He is now the proud husband of Mary Ourisman, US ambassador to Barbados.

What does he drive now? A Cadillac. “I’m a General Motors guy,” he says. But he adds, “We sell a lot of other brands.” If you don’t want a GM car, he’s still got a deal for you.

Richard Fairbank

Credit-card revolutionary

Rich Fairbank was a young Stanford MBA working for Strategic Planning Associates when he had an epiphany: “After working with companies in many different industries, I realized that when the world is about to change, the last people to see it are those closest to it.”

Fairbank saw that banks were issuing one-size-fits-all credit cards with fixed annual rates, ignoring people’s different lifestyles, needs, and creditworthiness. A lot of information on potential credit-card customers was available. Why not use it to create customized solutions for each person?

Fairbank’s first challenge was selling the banking industry on his idea—asking bankers to undergo something akin to a religious conversion, he says. In 1988, Signet Bank in Richmond agreed to try Fairbank’s idea. Three years later, Signet offered the first cards targeted to the millions who couldn’t get plastic before but were good credit risks. By 1994, the credit-card operation was the tail wagging the dog. Signet spun it off, and Rich Fairbank became chair and CEO of the new Capital One.

The company grew rapidly. By the end of 2000, Capital One had 34 million customers and more than $29 billion in cardholder balances.

Fairbank defied conventional wisdom again with the acquisition of Hibernia Corporation, a New Orleans–based holding company, in 2005 and North Fork Bancorp, in Melville, New York, a year later. He predicted that the capital markets were about to undergo major changes and “good old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar banking” was going to prevail.

Capital One is now the nation’s 13th-largest bank, with 740 locations and more than 50 million accounts worldwide. Fairbank was named 2006 Banker of the Year by American Banker and best CEO in specialty finance by Institutional Investor.

His newest project: teaching kids about money. In 2006, Capital One and Junior Achievement launched a “finance park” in Fairfax County, an interactive mobile classroom to introduce middle-schoolers to money management. Some 14,000 kids will go through the program in 2008; Fairfax County is creating a permanent facility to house it.

Before he went to business school, Fairbank, the father of eight, thought he’d end up running a program for kids. The finance park has enabled him to come full circle. “We have a unique opportunity to add value to the community,” he says. “How cool is that?”

Milton Peterson

A visionary Virginian builds a great gateway to Maryland

When ROTC grad Milt Peterson arrived here from Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1958 to work for the Army Corps of Engineers, Northern Virginia had “just about zero business,” he recalls. Instead of being discouraged, he was inspired.

“Every other world capital was a great city,” he says. “Washington was not as large or commercially important as it should be. It had to grow and prosper.”

Peterson stayed to grow with his adopted city. He started out selling houses for Stephen Yeonas in Vienna and in 1961 became the area’s youngest salesperson to make the Million Dollar Sales Club.

Four years later, Peterson left Yeonas to start his own home-building firm and a commercial-development company. Because he had little capital, development was a struggle. He sold commercial real estate to keep his company going.

In the past 40 years, Peterson has become a leader in mixed-use development in Virginia and Maryland, both as a principal in the Hazel/Peterson Companies and with his own Peterson Companies. His projects have included downtown Silver Spring, Fair Lakes, Virginia Gateway, and residential communities like Burke Centre and Franklin Farm.

In 2003, Peterson received a lifetime-achievement award from the Urban Land Institute, and his company has won more than 70 awards for preservation, marketing, and design excellence.

He also has raised money to build new Methodist churches in the area, worked on economic development for four Virginia governors, and chaired the Fairfax Economic Development Authority.

No project has engaged Peterson more than his current one—National Harbor in Prince George’s County. When he first walked the property, with its 1¼ acres of riverfront, he says he felt an enormous responsibility: “I stood on the shore and realized, ‘That ain’t a retention pond; that’s the historic Potomac River. That ain’t Hoboken; that’s the world capital.’ ”

Peterson’s company has invested 13 years and hundreds of millions of dollars in National Harbor without financial return. Only a family business or private company that doesn’t answer to stockholders looking for quick profits could do it, Peterson says.

Will it be worth it? He has no doubt. That’s why he bought the sculpture “The Awakening” and moved it from DC’s Hains Point to National Harbor. Prince George’s County was overdue for an awakening. Peterson believes National Harbor will be the gateway to Maryland and bring new prosperity to the undiscovered side of the Potomac.

This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles like it, click here.