““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Voyager Group's Jim Dolan
James Dolan made news in the Pittsburgh business press in 1996 when he left a successful position as president and CEO of Federated Services Co., a subsidiary of Federated Investors, after 20 years with the well-established investment manager. To outsiders, it appeared to be a dream job. More puzzling, Dolan said he really didn't know what he wanted to do next, except that he wasn't ready to retire.
Just a year later, however, he established Access Data Corporation. "Today, about $4 trillion-worth of assets go through Access Data daily," he told me during our interview in a Signature Flight Support conference room in Morristown, N.J. "We're probably one of the largest deliverers of software services to the financial industry."
Dolan had flown in the day before-for meetings in New York-on his Hawker 900XPi, the first example of this model delivered to a customer. Right after our interview, he flew back to Pittsburgh in time for dinner-and his first grandchild's first birthday that weekend.
Access Data is now part of the Voyager Group, a private equity holding company that is wholly owned by the Dolan family. Among its 16 companies and investments are two FBOs-Voyager Jet Center at Allegheny Airport near Pittsburgh and Yellowstone Jetcenter in Bozeman, Mont.-real estate company Rivers to Peaks and Voyager Construction, both in Montana.
But it's The Club at Spanish Peaks in Montana, Dolan's latest project and passion, that takes up most of his time. "Nothing inspires me more than getting up in the morning and seeing the majesty of Montana," he said. "And nothing is more draining than sitting 14 hours in a conference room in Pennsylvania talking about it. It will be at least 10 more years of work."
Jim, you have several operations in western Pennsylvania and Montana. What's the connection?
Pittsburgh remains my home and it's where I go to work. I keep my heart and soul in Montana.
How did you get this relationship with Montana?
Patty and I have six sons. Every year, we took a ski vacation to a different place. The boys always said, "That was fun. Let's go back there next year." And I always said, "No. They've all been fun. Let's keep looking." Then we went to Montana in 1995 and simply fell in love with it. We built a home out there and acquired several pieces of property. One of the results is The Club at Spanish Peaks.
Where did this idea come from?
We wanted to do something that was family-centric and a legacy for our family. We wanted to create a community that we feel represents what is most important to us about Montana. It is also consistent with what I like to do, which is to create-to set the stage and put the people together. On the business side, this involves lots of parts to make it happen. The CEO's role is to do all this.
Can you explain what "all this" entails?
The CEO has three important roles. You must have a vision about strategy, tactics and market. The second role is capital. You must finance the business in some form. And lastly, you must bring together the people. You need to manage all three. The hardest to manage is the talent.
Which role is most critical?
The most important decisions you make are always about people. Great plan, great strategy, wrong people-no success. Weak strategy, weak plan, great people-better chance of succeeding. They'll figure it out. You need to give them as much room to run as they need and motivate them to be leaders.
I use the metaphor of pictures. The way I describe it to people is, "We give you canvas and paint. You know what we want you to do. Paint! When you get near the edge of the canvas and you're not sure what you should be doing, check back with me." I don't want to be managing every day.
So, in this metaphor the CEO's vision is the picture?
Yes. What is Access Data going to do? What is Voyager Jet Center going to be? What is Spanish Peaks going to be? That comes from the CEO.
As a measure, I tend to be a consumer of the things I make. When I'm in the airplane, I'm there as a customer. I fill out the comment card, and I may be more stringent, but I'm looking at it from a customer's point of view.
How do you manage so many companies?
I probably spend half my time now on Spanish Peaks, because it's that time for the business and partly because I enjoy it. In the beginning of Access Data, I spent 100 percent of my time on it. Now I'm the chairman and the president runs the company. We're investors in a number of our other companies, not managers.
How did you get involved in private aviation?
At Federated, I had the opportunity to use the company planes-Citations, Lears and Hawkers. When we built our house in Montana, my wife said, "This is wonderful. Let's talk about getting ourselves a private airplane." So for Christmas of 1999 I bought her a Hawker 700.
What's the significance of the 1776 tail numbers on your airplanes?
Villanova, Philadelphia, Bicentennial. I went to see the play 1776 with my then-girlfriend, who became my wife. I was mesmerized by Adams, Jefferson and Franklin-the guts they had to do what they did. I don't ever want to forget it. And I don't want my sons to forget it. I listen to the political discourse today and think what a pleasure it is to have it.
What is your personal management style and who or what was its greatest influence?
I think you learn from everyone. When I'm interviewing someone for a job, I always say, "Tell me about the best and worst managers you've ever had, and why." You learn two things: what that person needs and what his or her experiences have been, both positive and negative. I think all of us continue to evolve and adjust our course. The problems I manage today are significantly different from the ones I managed five or 15 years ago.
How would you describe your management style?
Warm, charming and considerate [laughs].
Do you ever raise your voice?
I'm sure I do. But to answer your question, I think I'm best at that vision thing-where are we going? Identifying the people to do it, empowering them and then holding them to task to accomplish it. After providing the vision, I'm more coach and mentor than taskmaster.
How would you handle a high-level executive's mistakes?
It depends if the mistake is caused by inattentiveness, bad judgment or something more maligned. If it's the third category, act quickly and sever. You should create
an organization that doesn't allow big mistakes to be made without you seeing them coming.
What are the most egregious mistakes a CEO can make?
To take yourself too seriously. The world would go on tomorrow if I wasn't here.
What do you consider your biggest success?
My 32-year marriage with Patty and our six sons. My professional success is that I've created things that have some lasting character. My philosophy is don't let your losses impact your long-range direction and don't let the wins go to your head.
Are your sons working in any of your businesses?
The three oldest are, the ones who have reached post-college decision time. Their choice, not mine.
Any advice for people who work for their father-or mother?
It's the hardest job in the world. You have to work twice as hard. You have to have twice as thick skin. You have to deal with having a personal relationship with your father or mother-or son or daughter-and having a professional relationship-and remember to keep those separate. I'm happy to have my sons working for Voyager, but would understand if they did not want to be involved in managing and owning the companies.
Do you see similarities between raising a family and running a business?
Yes, I do. You motivate your children. You set boundaries and performance standards. You do the same thing in business.
Does anything keep you up at night?
We're in economic cycles. Each of our businesses is different. How does that affect development plans, hiring plans and investment? I read the Wall Street Journal cover to cover and think, how can I react to that? How can I improve what we can do? I'd rather it be all good news, but change creates opportunity.
Do you see any opportunities now?
Everybody talks about how real estate, stocks and airplanes are down. You make your money when you buy things, not when you sell them.
CEO Files Résumé: James Dolan
Position: Chairman and CEO of Voyager Group, Pittsburgh. Founder and CEO of The Club at Spanish Peaks, Big Sky, Mont. Chairman, CEO and founder of Access Data Corp., Pittsburgh. Chairman of Voyager Jet Center, Allegheny County Airport, Pa., and chairman of Yellowstone Jetcenter in Bozeman, Mont., both FBOs. Also, a director of TriState Capital Bank, Pittsburgh, and of PlanMember Services, Carpinteria, Calif.
Previous positions: Chairman of Atlantic Aviation Flight Services, Teterboro, N.J., before its acquisition by Sentient Jet in 2005. From 1976 to 1996, was president of Federated Services Co., a subsidiary of Federated Investors. Chairman and CEO of Liberty Bank and Trust Co., New Jersey.
Education: B.A., English, Villanova University, Villanova, Pa., 1975; JD, Duquesne University School of Law, Pittsburgh, 1980.
Personal: Age 53. Married 32 years to Patricia Donahue Dolan, daughter of John Donahue, founder and chairman of Federated Investors; six children, one grandchild; homes in Fox Chapel, Pa.; Big Sky, Mont.; Naples, Fla.