THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Tuesday, October 29, 1996 TAG: 9610290285 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SERIES: DECISION 96 SOURCE: BY DAVID M. POOLE, STAFF WRITER LENGTH: 253 lines
A folk art statue in Mark Warner's office overlooking the Potomac River stands as a tribute to the corporate drone he never became.
The papier-mache figure depicts a gray-suited businessman hauling a leather briefcase on his shoulders. His body is stooped, as if the leather case is weighed down by a dozen bricks.
Warner, 41, has a spring in his step that comes from having achieved success on his own terms. Warner has no formal training in business; as a college student he was a political junkie who never darkened the commerce school door. When he brokered his first cellular telephone deal in 1982, he couldn't even read a balance sheet.
But Warner had other skills that made him a master of the emerging wireless universe. When the federal government gave away cellular licenses in those early years, no one knew where the market was heading or how big it would become. Warner didn't sweat the details; he simply understood the genius of untethering telephones from wires.
He made things up as he went along, morphing himself into a general contractor, a commodities broker, a conflict resolver and, finally, a merchant banker.
After amassing a $100 million fortune, Warner has returned to his first love of politics. The Democrat says the skills that made him a visionary businessman would serve Virginia well in the U.S. Senate.
In September, during a bumpy flight over Southwest Virginia, Warner pitched into a soliloquy on how digital technology will roil the economy and society in ways not witnessed since the dawn of the industrial age.
Speaking in rapid bursts and waving his hands, Warner was more than a politician wringing rhetoric from a business resume. He spoke with a prophet's passion.
Some days, however, Mark Warner must feel like the papier-mache dupe in his office, trudging uphill with bricks on his back.
That's because the cellular wiz,known for his knack of picking business winners, chose to make his political debut against the state's most popular politician.
U.S. Sen. John Warner broke onto the state's political stage 18 years ago on the arm of his then-wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor. The Republican since has become known for seniority that protects military bases underpinning the economies of Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. John Warner is also renowned for his flights of independence, most notably his opposition to Iran-Contra figure Oliver North in a Senate race two years ago.
Mark Warner admits frustration at trying to get people to look to the future, beyond what John Warner has done for them lately.
``If they ask that question, it's going to be hard for me to overcome,'' he said. ``It's not about where we've been; it's where we're going. If I can get them to ask that question, I win.''
Virginians who spent any time in front of the tube this summer can recite the basics of The Mark Warner Story: The first member of his family to attend college. Prospects so modest that at one point he could fit all his earthly possessions into his 1969 Buick. Failure in his first two business ventures before scoring the American Dream.
The campaign has fostered an image of Mark Warner slumming his way through his mid-20s. It's true that he chose to forgo a high-paying legal job after his graduation from Harvard Law. He instead took a job in politics, raising money for the Democratic National Committee.
But he was hardly a slacker. His DNC job gave him entree to some of the wealthiest people around the nation. These contacts would launch him toward success.
In his travels for the Democratic Party, Warner became pals with Tom McMillen, a forward with the Atlanta Hawks of the National Basketball Association who later would serve as a Democratic congressman from Maryland.
In 1982, McMillen had been invited to invest in a group vying for a ``cellular radio'' license for the Atlanta area. He told Warner that cellular might just be the next big thing.
Wall Street was not as certain. With the first car phone models selling for $5,000, some telecommunications analysts predicted that cellular would never capture more than 1 percent of the market.
``They thought it was a crazy idea - phones in cars,'' Warner said.
Warner set about to put together applications for cellular licenses in his hometown and three other Connecticut cities. First he needed money. Through a political contact, he wangled an appointment with a wealthy Connecticut financier, who agreed on the spot to back the tenderfoot with $1 million.
Earlier this month, John Warner ran a TV spot accusing his younger opponent of making a fortune by exploiting political connections and taking advantage of a massive federal giveaway program.
Mark Warner seethes at such criticism, calling it ``character assassination'' that demeans the energy, drive and nimble-footedness that went into building his fortune.
``I'm proud of how I built my business,'' Mark Warner said.
John Warner's criticism contains more than a few grains of truth. The Federal Communications Commission gave away cellular licenses that today would be worth more than $80 billion. Critics say taxpayers should have benefited from the sale of public airwaves. Congress has since changed the law so that the next communication spectrum will be auctioned to the highest bidder.
Donald Ritter, a former congressman from Pennsylvania who pushed for changes in the law in the early 1990s, said the biggest beneficiaries of the old system were brokers like Mark Warner.
``It was a middleman operation,'' Ritter said. ``Great riches were made along the way. It was all perfectly legal.''
``In hindsight, it was one of the great giveaways of all time. But no one knew it then,'' said James Murray, one of Warner's four partners in Columbia Capital Corp, a merchant banking firm.
Mark Warner put it this way: If the FCC cellular lottery was such an obvious boondoggle, why didn't the Senate block the plan? And why didn't John Warner rise in outrage on the Senate floor?
``This was a (President) Reagan proposal that John Warner voted for, and I think it's the height of hypocrisy for him to criticize it 14 years later.''
Two weeks ago, John Warner backed down during a debate before a group of Fairfax County business executives. ``We needed to get that technology out; the licenses were there,'' he said.
When he jumped into cellular in 1982, Mark Warner kept moving to stay ahead of the rapidly changing market.
He started as a ``general contractor'' who provided investors with all the services - engineering, legal and regulatory - they needed to file applications for cellular licenses. In return, he took a fee and a 5 percent share.
But the FCC quickly changed the rules, scrapping the time-consuming process of combing through applications to select the best proposal for each market. The FCC sped things up with a lottery.
Applicants in most major cities decided to pool their chances in ``settlement groups,'' rather than risk losing everything in a winner-take-all drawing. The result was that dozens of players ended up with tiny slices of various markets.
Mark Warner found a new niche as a commodities broker, serving as a middleman as cellular operators sought to consolidate their holdings by swapping market slices back and forth.
Earning a commission on each deal, his fortunes soared as the cellular market exploded in the late 1980s. The value of cellular licenses has increased 50-fold in the last 14 years.
As his personal wealth rose and the industry matured, Warner shifted to the role of merchant banker. He and four managing partners set up a firm, Columbia Capital Corp., to invest in companies with growth potential in the wireless field.
Again, his timing was golden. Columbia took three companies public in the mid-1990s, just as high-tech stocks were fetching wild prices on Wall Street.
His Senate financial disclosure form shows that the trio of companies - Nextel, Saville and Telular - make up the biggest chunk of his fortune. At the end of last year, Warner estimated his net worth at between $58 million and $204 million.
During a rare break from the campaign trail, Mark Warner spent a recent afternoon roaming around the stylish offices of Columbia Capital.
The place has the feel of the creative section of an ad agency, with no hierarchy and few boundaries. Mark Warner takes several phone calls, none of them at his desk. He settles down in the break room, sipping on a Diet Coke and gabbing on the phone with his press secretary, Eric Hoffman.
Warner is no detail man. He was trained as a lawyer, but he concedes that his mind does not think in logical progression.
At the Williamsburg debate, Warner was perplexed when his opponent mentioned that he had been an officer in more than 60 partnerships and corporations.
The next day, Mark Warner cornered Columbia Capital's comptroller. ``How many companies do I have?'' he asked.
His partners say Warner brings to the firm a strategic mind that can visualize future trends and an uncanny ability to bring various factions together.
``Mark is not a business operator in terms of long-term management of details,'' said Murray, one of his partners. ``He is a very good at walking into a situation, taking a quick read of the facts and finding the middle ground.
``People say that if Mark is elected, he would be one of the top five richest men in the Senate. They have it wrong. I'd say with the retirement of Bill Bradley (of New Jersey), he would be the smartest man in the Senate.''
Sometimes, Warner has to pinch himself to remember he is super rich.
He lives comfortably, but does not flaunt his money. He and his wife, Lisa Collis, and their three young daughters live in a $2 million townhouse in the chic Old Town section of Alexandria, just five blocks from his office. They spend weekends on a $4 million farm in King George County.
On the campaign trail, Warner emphasizes his middle-class roots. He plays pickup basketball like one of the guys. He pines for his 1969 Buick.
Still, his money has come to define him in his first race for political office.
He is something entirely new in Virginia politics, a candidate who can dash off a $500,000 personal check each week to keep his message glowing in living rooms all over the state.
Warner jokes that when the election is over he might be known as the ``formerly wealthy Mark Warner.'' The line always gets laughs, but the truth is that Warner - based on his 1995 salary - could blow $8 million and still have about $2 million for groceries.
Win or lose, Warner will never have to worry about becoming the overburdened company chump who stands silent in the corner of his corner office.
He spotted the statue, titled ``Workload,'' at a local gallery.
``It just struck me as kind of funny,'' he said. ``There are days I feel like that. There are days I feel like you just have to keep trudging.'' ILLUSTRATION: [Color Photo]
Mark Warner doesn't intend to compete with his opponent's record.
His campaign strategy, he says, is ``not about where we've been;
it's where we're going.''
THE JOB INTERVIEW
As Virginians look forward to the Nov. 5 election, they're
thinking a lot about the qualities they want in their leaders. They
attach roughly equal importance to the candidates' stands on the
issues and the candidates' leadership qualities.
They want leaders who understand people's aspirations and
concerns, and who in particular know what's going on with the
economy. The direction of economic life is the No. 1 concern on the
mends of Virginians.
What Virginians Are Thinking
56 percent of Virginians say it's extremely important for a
senator to bring new perspectives to the government from the private
72 percent of Virginians say it's extremely important for a
senator to understand the changing economy and the role of new
SOURCE: The Harwood Group, a Maryland-based research firm,
designed the survey for The Virginian-Pilot. It was conducted by
Communications Center Inc. of Washington. which surveyed 672 adult
Virginians from June 27 to July 1. The margin of error is plus or
minus 4 percentage points, with 95 percent confidence.
Mark Warner, seeking his first elective office, promises a fresh
voice and modern perspective at a time when the nation's economy is
becoming increasingly high-tech.
``I have created jobs in the high-tech field,'' he says, ``and I
run a business that competes internationally. I can be a leader for
the information age of the 21st century.''
He's said: ``Virginia has the opportunity to be at the forefront
of the new economy if we have leaders who understand the way that
our economy is changing.
``From the fiber-optic network of Roanoke and the research and
development centers of Hampton Roads, to the information technology
companies of Northern Virginia, our commonwealth has the resources
to harness the power of new technology for an unprecedented economic
expansion in all parts of Virginia.''
An example of his best work
He helped create the Virginia Health Care Foundation, a
public-private partnership that provides health care services to
Virginians who don't qualify for Medicaid and can't afford private
Career: Founder and president, MRW Enterprises, wireless
communications; founder and managing director, Columbia Capital
Corp., merchant banking and investment banking firm specializing in
Civic: Various boards and involvements, including Virginia Health
Care Foundation; George Washington University board of trustees;
Virginia Foundation of Independent Colleges board of trustees.
Harvard Law School, 1980; George Washington University, 1977.
Family: Married, three children.
KEYWORDS: INTERVIEW PROFILE CANDIDATE SENATE RACE VIRGINIA
1996 by CNB