Mark Warner’s Latest Venture –

Mark Warner says running for office is like the longest roadshow of your life, and he ought to know about roadshows. The former cellular entrepreneur and founder of Columbia Capital LLC has launched dozens of companies. This time, he’s running for governor of Virginia and he’s in the lead.

In some ways, the campaign and the venture business share a lifestyle. Warner puts in six-and-a-half, 16-hour campaign days each week.

Both predators and competitors, the campaign people could be entrepreneurs in another life. They share the energy, the sense of urgency and the very real possibility that in a handful of months they will be either playing with the big boys or looking for a real job.

“A campaign is a $15 million start-up whose product has been in a year of intense R&D, had a year of product testing and is three years in the making with a one-day selling cycle,” says Russ Ramsey, managing partner of Capital Crossover Partners.

Warner and the Northern Virginia technology scene grew up together with friends like Ramsey, Steve Case and Raul Fernandez. Like his first run for office, his first entrepreneurial attempts failed. But his third attempt, a cellular company in 1982, secured his place in the growing venture capital industry.

Giving Back
In the private sector, Mark Warner has kept himself busy over the years with an active role in organizations such as:

  • Medical Care for Children Project
  • Venture Philanthropy Partners
  • Virginia High Tech Partnership
  • Five Rural Virgina VC Funds
  • TechRiders
  • Tek.Xam
  • Virginia Health Care Foundation
  • Virginia Math and Science Coalition
  • Virginia Communities in Schools
  • Capital Investors Club
  • Virginia Democratic Party – past chair
  • Board of trustees of Appalachian School of Law and George Washington University
  • Part owner of a movie studio with actor Tim Reid
  • Ownership stakes in Majestic Cafe and Austin Grill
  • Despite the kindred spirits, the campaign office is worlds away – across the tracks – from the offices of Columbia Capital perched over the Potomac River in historical Old Town Alexandria.

    Blue-shirted entrepreneurs hunched over laptops cycle through the front room of Columbia. The partners decorate their large offices with reproductions of tombstones, quirky pieces of art and the best thousand-dollar office chairs on the market.

    Amanda Crumley, communications director at the campaign, may describe Warner 2001 headquarters best when she says, “I have come to like crappy offices with poor ventilation and bad lighting.” The campaign took over a warehouse previously used to store old, paper, airplane tickets.

    Nothing in the warehouse is less than 15 years old – not the office chairs, the mismatched telephones or the June 1983 copy of Architectural Digest in the lobby. A lucrative collection of McDonald’s Monopoly game pieces betrays the long hours, hasty meals and tight budget.

    Ramsey, formerly at Freidman, Billings, Ramsey Group, says he and Warner have co-invested in about six deals, one of which, Riverbed Systems, Ramsey counts as one of his biggest hits “a 50-ish to one winner.” Warner’s first taste of the venture market came in the seed rounds of Nextel Communications Inc. He invested so early he was buying the founders’ airplane tickets.

    Why would anybody want to trade the good life for this?

    Warner’s Style

    Mario Morino, area philanthropist and founder of Legent Corp., first met Warner in 1993 through a non-profit partnership for providing medical care for children.

    “[When you get to know him], you begin to see how grounded the guy is. He actually cares about this stuff,” Morino says.

    For Warner, the battle for the Commonwealth isn’t a two-month crusade. Starting a year ago, the campaign divorced him from active involvement in his firm and limited his time with his family.

    When Warner talks about missing the past year in the venture industry, he says, “maybe I could have helped things.” In Warner’s mind somebody has to step up; it might as well be him.

    Indeed, Warner could be the poster boy for private sector involvement in community initiatives, with a busy list of projects.

    “That’s Mark,” Morino says. “Mark is a rainmaker, a powerful rainmaker.” Warner envisions a project and gets it going, and it happens.

    Bruce Saville, president of the Saville Group, worked with Warner as the technology guy when Warner sewed up all the Canadian cellular licenses in 1985 for Cantel Inc. A few years later, Saville credits Warner for the idea and chutzpah for taking Saville Systems international and eventually public.

    Ramsey and Saville both say Mark figures out the big picture, brings in the right people to work out the details and moves on to the next battle. He’s not the soldier. He’s the general rolling up his sleeves when necessary and then getting out of the way.

    Warner even says, “I’m not a technologist by any means.”

    Harry Hopper, partner at Columbia, says he left his former VC shop to join Columbia, because of the entrepreneurial atmosphere and the unique dynamics of the partnership.

    Warner says the original group operated on a gentlemen’s agreement, without even a partnership document in the early years. Today, that culture still influences the 13-partner institution that developed from the efforts of Warner and the other Columbia founders. All decisions are made collectively around the same board table, and the equity splits along contribution lines.

    “I was more interested in having Columbia Capital be institutionalized than trying to take the last dollar off the table,” Warner said. “You built this on the basis of relationships, and you never burn that relationship.”

    This gubernatorial race is not Warner’s first stab at political office in Virginia. He unsuccessfully challenged Republican Senator John Warner, an entrenched incumbent with star power, in 1996. “[Mark Warner] went into a race no one thought he had a chance to win,” Morino says, but he closed the point-spread much more than anyone expected and fought to the last day.

    How He’ll Win This Time

    It’s Day 97. Warner clings to a seven-point lead in the most recent poll. Without dipping substantially into his personal war chest, he’s broken the Commonwealth’s fund-raising records, raking in over $8 million from more than 10,000 donors. Warner says more than half that money came from Republicans and independents.

    Warner holds ideas for state government that only a VC could muster. “This is about the mindset of the people who come out of the technology industry,” Warner says. “Which is show me how to get the result, how can I do it quickest and most efficiently, and how can I utilize my tools.”

    An Entrepreneur’s Take on Government

    As an entrepreneur, Mark Warner says he brings new ideas to the state capitol. Here are a few:

  • Compensate educators competitively
  • Reward good teachers with a stock-option plan
  • Expand in-state scholarship opportunities
  • Lay fiber-optic conduit under every new road
  • Provide incentives for knowledge-based companies to locate in rural Virginia
  • Have two of the top-40 nationwide research universities
  • Improve vocational education to attract skilled jobs
  • Incorporate career development at every level, K-12
  • Appoint industry advisory panels to consult the state on training skilled workers
  • Promote global trade in Virginia’s agricultural products
  • Establish a Web site to introduce aspiring farmers to retiring farmers with nobody to carry on their operation
  • Remove disincentives for disabled people to work
  • Audit the state’s tourism board
  • Use technology to deliver state services more efficiently
  • Warner says the late-90s brought in an historic change, with the information age affecting the economy, education, health care and the nature of our communities. He thinks most politicians missed the transition of the socio-economic paradigm.

    “We’ve got to change the nature of the debate in America,” he says. “I don’t think politics in the 21st Century is going to be about the Republicans versus the Democrats.”

    Warner wants to keep the focus of the campaign away from guns and abortion. He wants to champion the new paradigm throughout the state, and the campaign has been in overdrive broadcasting Warner’s ideas for the Commonwealth.

    “On this campaign, I’ll hate to see what October hours are,” Crumley says. “We’ll probably have to put cots in the back and bring in toothbrushes.”

    Warner says the campaign presents different stresses than the business world.

    “You wake up everyday, and you realize you’ve got 30 or 40 people on the other side who are waking up that morning with the sole intent to find a way to mess up your life,” he says.

    Despite Warner’s statewide efforts and business background, Republicans have labeled him as a rich guy from Northern Virginia and another liberal Democrat.

    On paper, Warner does not look like a liberal. Campaign signs boast slogans like “This is Mark Warner Country” printed over the Smokey Mountains and “Sportsmen for Mark Warner” in hunter orange with a picture of a rifle. He plans to meet with the National Rifle Association in a state where Charlton Heston personally campaigned against the last incumbent Democrat a year ago.

    A piece of the torn sheet metal door from the No. 15 truck that Warner sponsored in the NASCAR truck series reads: “To MARK your MONEY buys us more DOORS!!,” signed by driver Jon Wood, a third-generation Virginia stock-car racer.

    His style and his varied interests may take him further than all his millions.

    Earl Freeman, taxi driver in Alexandria since 1962, thinks Warner will win. “He’s interested in what’s been going on with the City of Alexandria with the taxi cabs,” he says. Cab drivers recently raised objections over the city’s certification policies.

    Warner did not mention that, but he’ll surely take the endorsement. It’s probably even true.

    Contact Charles Fellers at: