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Mark Warner: the man who builds teams

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Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner is one of those “connector” people.

As a college student in Washington, D.C., the burgeoning presidential candidate jumped into politics, doing donkey work for various Democrats and gaining a reputation for being everybody’s friend.

After graduating first in his class from George Washington University —and first in his family with a college degree—Warner attended Harvard Law, where he introduced friends, organized study groups and coached the school’s first intramural basketball team for women.

Peers and school administrators remember that Warner’s graduating class hung together more than usual, which they credit partly to him. He planned parties or brought people together in other ways “that made us seem more connected,” says one classmate.

“He wasn’t part of a faction,” says another. “He overlapped everyone.”

Newly sprung from law school, Warner wanted to enter politics but was spooked when he saw a campaign end $300,000 in debt. So, he decided not to run for office until he could foot the bill.

That’s when he dredged up a second key quality: risk tolerance.

Warner placed three bets in a row. First, he poured his savings into a business venture involving oil-burning furnaces. It blew up in six weeks. Then, he tried shopping mall development, which failed in six months.

Finally, he heard a tip about the government awarding broad bands of radio spectrum for cellular licenses— the future pathway of wireless phones —and hit it big.

But guess what? Warner did it by calling on that original skill: his ability to connect people. Since he did not have the technical knowledge to build a cellular network or the money to fund it, he found people who did.

That first deal yielded enough cash for Warner to start his own company and build more teams. In 1987, he started a company that grew into Nextel.

At the start of his 2001 campaign for governor, Warner listed his assets at about $200 million: cushion enough if his bid failed. And once he became governor, Warner kept up his game of connecting people, bringing Republicans and Democrats together to tackle tough problems. But that’s another story.

—Adapted from “Making a Mark,” Garrett M. Graff, Washingtonian.

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