In touting his qualifications to manage King County’s $3.4 billion budget, David Irons Jr. likes to talk up his “25 years of successful small business experience,” even bragging to Northwest News that he “formed three start-up companies.”
Thus it was with some disappointment that I found the Seattle Times’ profile of Irons’ business background to contain nary a word explaining, um, exactly what it was he actually did at any of these “start-ups”… you know, his responsibilities, duties, accomplishments… the actual executive experience that allegedly prepares him to manage a county government larger than that of thirteen states.
Well, there’s apparently a good reason why the Times’ failed to detail Irons’ day-to-day management responsibilities at All Points Cable TV, Brigadoon.com and CCPI… according to sources at all three companies, Irons didn’t really have any. Indeed, a close examination of his resume reveals that far from the “25 years of executive experience” he claimed on Up Front with Robert Mak, Irons really only has maybe 3 or 4 years to his credit… and even that is suspect.
Let’s start with his parent’s company, All Points Cable TV. In a 1997 resume, Irons made some truly impressive claims:
Wow. That’s quite some resume. On paper, this guy sounds like a can-do, jack of all trades. Of course, a 1999 resume from his first Council run was slightly less effusive:
But under the scrutiny of a high-profile campaign, Irons’ 2005 website is cautiously more concise, reducing his tenure at the family company to a single bullet point: “VP & co-owner All Points Cable TV – 1982 to 1995.”
Okay, let’s forget for a moment the question of whether Irons actually lied on his resume, for this isn’t really about lying on his resume, no matter how much of a lie his resume apparently is. This is about what he actually did at All Points Cable TV (as opposed to the lies on his resume), and whether it gave him any of the vaunted management experience Irons claims to possess. For example, I mentioned to his sister Di that “VP & co-owner” made it sound like her brother had a significant role running the place… and she actually laughed. “David…?” she chuckled, “he fixed the trucks.”
Hmm. That seemed odd.
So when I talked to Irons’ mother, I made a point of reading to her the rather effusive prose on her son’s 1997 resume, and… well… she laughed. “99 percent of what he wrote, there’s not one bit of truth to it,” Janet C. Irons told me. According to his mother, David occasionally went out on construction jobs, but mostly worked alone in the garage, maintaining vehicles and equipment. He was “an excellent mechanic” his mother told me, but didn’t get along very well with people.
I didn’t talk directly with Irons’ father, but the Times reporter did. And what did David Sr. have to say about his son’s role at the company?
David Irons Sr., while acknowledging that his son had the title of vice president, said he was a co-owner only in the sense that he held company stock. He said his son’s role was limited mostly to construction work and maintaining the company’s trucks. “He did a lot of welding,” Irons Sr. said.
A lot of welding. Uh-huh. Perhaps that’s Irons’ plan to fix the Viaduct should I-912 pass?
The real owners of All Points Cable TV, Irons’ own parents, insist that during his 13-year tenure, he was not involved with the management and operations of the company… at all… and that he didn’t even have an office. (On the radio last week, Irons’ mom referred to her son as a “grease monkey.” ) And Irons has presented absolutely no evidence to the contrary.
Furthermore, the timeline makes it indisputably clear that Irons could not possibly have “formed” the start-up as he claimed; his parents started the company in the late 1970’s while David Jr. was still up in Alaska working on the pipeline — you know… welding. The Irons did not bring their son into the family business until 1982, and didn’t start compensating him with stock until several years after that.
But once again, this is not really about Irons’ completely bogus resume, and how he bogusly lied on it. This is about whether his tenure at the family business gave him any of the management experience he boastfully touts. And the answer must be no, for even at its height the company never employed more than a dozen people, none of whom reported to David Jr… a fact he has never disputed.
Thus from the 25 years of successful small business experience and 3 startups Irons claims to have formed, we must subtract 13 and 1 respectively… so we’re down to 12 years and 2 startups. Still, not too shabby, but not at all what Irons claims.
On to Brigadoon…
On all of his resumes, Irons claims to have served as Chief Operating Officer of Brigadoon.com from 1995 to 1997… which I suppose he credits for 3 of his
25 12 years of successful small business experience, and 1 of his 3 2 vaunted startups. In fact, while I couldn’t pinpoint his actual start date, it appears his entire tenure at Brigadoon was only about 15 months, less than a year of which he served as COO. Furthermore, it was far from “successful”, unless of course, you measure success by how many millions of dollars your company ends up owing investors, vendors and employees when it finally goes belly-up… in which case Brigadoon could be described as an enviable triumph of free market capitalism.
So, how did a grease monkey like David Jr. end up as COO of a multimillion dollar dot.com bust like Brigadoon? The same way the cussing, wrench-throwing welder earned himself the title of “VP” at a local, cable TV company: daddy.
After the sale of his cable business, David Sr. had a few million dollars burning a hole in his pocket, and what better way to multiply his fortune than to invest in a company with the brilliant business plan of giving away free internet service to schools in a risky gambit to dominate a saturated dial-up market on the cusp of being decimated by broadband? (Yeah, yeah, I know… I have the benefit of hindsight… but I’m on a roll here, so bear with me.) As nutty as the entire Irons clan might now seem, David Sr. was a fairly well known and respected Eastside figure back then. A self-made millionaire and a former US Coast Guard Commander and Chief of Aviation — who Jr. himself used to refer to as “a hero” — David Sr. could not only bring a desperately needed cash infusion into the ambitious company, but also provide the credibility necessary to lure in other investors.
And so when Brigadoon’s predecessor started into negotiations with David Sr. in the latter half of 1995, one of the first things they did was offer a sales/marketing position to his recently unemployed son, David Jr…. despite the fact that the marketing department had few if any trucks to maintain. (On the other hand, there weren’t many loose wrenches lying around either, so it was a relatively safe hire.) And so at the age of 43, David Jr. finally got his first office. Or… maybe it was cubicle. Either way, it wasn’t in a garage. Um… I don’t think.
By February of 1996, David Sr. had invested over $400,000 and loaned Brigadoon an additional $100,000, controlling 23% of the outstanding shares, and earning himself a seat on the Board. Shortly thereafter, David Jr. was promoted to COO, a meteoric rise for a mediocre man, who up until that point barely had any experience managing his own anger, let alone a staff.
At this point the Irons family and my sources at Brigadoon tell starkly different tales of what was really happening at the company, but from both accounts one gets a pretty clear picture of COO David Jr.’s initial role: he was a mole installed to protect the family’s interests. Irons’ parents claim that they soon discovered Brigadoon to be under-capitalized, vastly mismanaged, and rife with illegal and ethically questionable accounting and stock maneuvers. However, my Brigadoon sources cite frequent, harassing letters from the Irons’ attorney-daughter Janet A. as evidence that the family was merely flinging trumped up accusations in an effort to seize control of the company. By June 5, 1996, after weeks of negotiating and angry letter writing, Brigadoon bought out David Sr.’s stake in the company… but as noted in a timeline provided by the Irons family: “DWI Jr. remains an officer.”
It was a month later that David Jr. sent a letter to Brigadoon’s board, which the Times’ article attempted to spin into a noble display of business ethics.
By July 1996, David Irons was just about fed up with Brigadoon.com, the Internet startup where he was chief operating officer.
He typed a letter to the board of directors, warning of “irregularities” including questionable stock sales and “manipulation of numbers” to boost the company’s image for investors.
Unless the company hired a securities expert to correct the problems, Irons feared, he could be held personally liable. Though he wanted to stay, Irons wrote, “my family and my personal integrity must come first.” He’d resign if the problems were not fixed.
Let’s be clear. By July 1996, David Jr. had only been COO for a few months, and not only didn’t he “type the letter”, he didn’t even compose it. As an accompanying cover letter explains, this letter, like all those associated with the Irons-Brigadoon disputes, was written by attorney-daughter Janet A., and in such context appears to be more of a mild blackmail note than an effort to genuinely fix problems at the company. Indeed, the letter closes with the following threat:
I will keep the contents of this letter confidential if the Board acts, however it is bound to become a topic of discussion within the company if I am forced to resign on August 15. I desperately hope that will not be necessary.
The letter alleges serious irregularities and securities violations “too numerous to list in their entirety”… but apparently not so serious or numerous that he ever bothered to notify authorities or warn other investors. In fact, David Jr. stayed on at Brigadoon, despite the alleged irregularities, profligate spending and shaky finances until February 1997… at which time he exited with the plum rights to one of the company’s only profitable assets.
How did David Jr. manage this little business coup?
In a July 2000 expose of the financial chaos that was Brigadoon, the Times mentions a little episode that David Jr. likes to spin into a tale of his own selfless, Christmas spirit:
Before Christmas 1996, Hansen promised employees they’d be paid, but he failed to follow through when an investor backed out. Irons said he was furious and put $50,000 on his credit card to make payroll.
But the truth behind this incident is much more Dickensian than David Jr. lets on, for it was good old-fashioned greed rather than holiday goodwill that prompted Jr. to whip out his credit card. COO David Jr. was intimately aware of the company’s precarious financial straights, and as Randy Fink, a former vice president at Brigadoon put it, this was an opportunity to “get out of there with some skin.” David Jr. had the company over a barrel, and so he collateralized his $50,000 emergency loan with the rights to one of Brigadoon’s only profitable assets: the convention center contracts that now form the basis of David Jr.’s current company, CCPI. When merely two months later David Jr. called in the loan, he knew that Brigadoon could not pay… and so he resigned as COO in February 1997, taking with him the lucrative contracts, and most of the employees from the business unit that served them. That, and $100,000 from his parents, put him in business on his own.
“He took advantage of a situation there and obviously feathered his bed at the expense of the Brigadoon shareholders,” Fink said. “It was one of the last major assets that was available and he ended up with it.
Brian Nelson, Brigadoon’s former general counsel is even more blunt in his assessment, characterizing the transaction as “loansharking” terms. “David was an officer, and he had a fiduciary responsibility to do what was best for all the shareholders, not just himself,” Nelson told me. “This deal did not appear to meet those obligations.”
The incident raises a number of unsettling questions in addition to that of whether David Jr., as COO, violated his fiduciary responsibility to shareholders… the most obvious being whether he received better treatment than Brigadoon’s many other creditors — most of whom came away with nothing — and if so… why? One can only speculate, but it seems reasonable to wonder if the spectacularly one-sided deal that put the company’s last major asset in the hands of an unhappy ex-COO had anything to do with his threatening letter from July 1996? Whatever the merits of the family’s allegations, Brigadoon saw fit to first buy out David Sr.’s shares (plus interest), and then eventually buy out David Jr. as well, giving him a sweetheart of a deal that apparently satisfied him enough to keep him quiet on his charges of wrongdoing.
And while Brigadoon wasn’t forced into bankruptcy until a little more than a year after David Jr.’s departure, it is also fair to question his claim that he had no role in the company’s failure. Surely, the loss of the lucrative convention center business must have exacerbated Brigadoon’s faltering bottom line. And if we are to believe that David Jr.’s own mismanagement didn’t contribute to the company’s well documented problems, one must ask… what exactly is it that Jr. did there during his brief tenure anyway?
Well, don’t look to his resume for answers, for according to Nelson and others, David Jr.’s Brigadoon blurb is just as self-aggrandizing as his fantastic tales of his years at All Points Cable TV. For example, the 1997 resume specifically names a number of corporations and organizations in which David Jr. claims “personal negotiation of Internet service contracts”… claims refuted by some of the people who actually did the negotiation. David Jr. did in fact attend some of these meetings, but according to one source, he was told to “sit in the corner and keep his mouth shout.”
So how thin is David Jr.’s Brigadoon resume? Well, one of my favorite bullet points is particularly telling:
Publications; Determined time-line to profitability was beyond resources of company and crafted elimination of department and reallocation of staff;
Um… so… in talking about his role in the Publications Department, he’s actually filling space on his resume by telling us what he didn’t do. (And by the way, the department he eliminated and staff he reallocated…? It consisted of a single person.)
The problem for David Jr. is that when it comes to Brigadoon, he tries to have it both ways. He wants to point to his brief tenure as COO as evidence of his management prowess, yet he refuses to take responsibility for any of the company’s problems. He tries to claim that the company slipped into bankruptcy only after he left, yet in internal documents and interviews with reporters he paints a picture of a company that was dramatically mismanaged and financially shaky from the day he arrived to the day he left. It may in fact be true that apart from stealing away one of Brigadoon’s only profitable assets, David Jr. did not contribute directly to the company’s eventual failure… but it is hard to argue that he did anything to help prevent it either. Far from fixing the company’s problems like the hands-on, can-do executive he pretends to be, David Jr. simply up and quit.
Former Brigadoon employees and officers describe him as anything from a “dangerous mole” to a “harmless figurehead”, and while some avoided him as a “bully”, others seemed to genuinely like him. But nobody, on or off the record, could recount to me a single accomplishment… which I suppose explains why the Times’ profile is equally thin in reporting his actual role at the company, beyond his title.
In fact, Irons held the title of COO for less than year, at a company that in no way could be described as “successful.” By his own account, he was not a founder, and did not “form” the startup. He was just a manager, hired and promoted at his father’s behest, with no prior qualifications to recommend him for the position, and no pertinent educational preparation. (It’s not like he was one of those snotty, newly-minted MBAs that started to infest the dot.com world during the mid 90’s… he never even graduated from college.) Finally, it is not at all clear what, if anything, David Jr. actually did at Brigadoon during his very brief tenure, other than sign his name to all those threatening letters penned by his sister Janet.
So from his alleged
25 12 years of successful small business experience, and 3 2 startups he supposedly formed, we must subtract 3 and 1 respectively, for a new total of 9 years of “executive experience” and 1 remaining startup. That brings us to CCPI, a company that rents temporary internet access to exhibitors displaying at Seattle’s WA State Convention Center, and several other venues.
I could only find a single CCPI employee willing to speak to me, and very off the the record, so I can’t really add much new information to what little has already been written about the company in the mainstream press. But I can tie up a few loose strings.
As has previously been noted, CCPI was not your typical “startup”, having essentially sprung fully formed from Zeus’s head at the time David Jr. left Brigadoon, convention center contracts and staffers in hand. Thus, with CCPI, David Jr. didn’t so much “form a startup” as he did purchase a fully functional business unit, and then slap a new name on it.
Having neither the technical expertise nor the managerial experience to operate a “high-tech” company, David Jr. has reportedly been a hands off CEO since the company’s founding, leaving the day to day operations in the hands of the managers who ran the business unit for Brigadoon… perhaps the wisest executive decision Jr. has made during his
25 12 9 years of “successful small business experience.” CCPI employees consider David Jr. to be an “absentee owner”, rarely seeing him at the company’s Bremerton offices… a long commute from his Sammamish home. And David Jr. himself has admitted to reporters that he has spent no more than 4 to 6 hours a week on the business since choosing to run for County Council in 1999.
Instead, David Jr. claims that he is responsible for the company’s “vision”, telling the Times that he’s learned a lesson from the high-flying, nose-diving Brigadoon, preferring a slow growth strategy for CCPI that may not be sexy, but is guaranteed to last. To which I respond with one cautionary word of free consulting advice: “WiMAX.”
Unlike David Jr., I have actually formed a technology startup with nothing but an idea, some credit cards, and a foolish dream, and thus I’ve had the opportunity to be personally reamed by vendors like CCPI while exhibiting at various convention centers around the nation. When an ethernet cable and three days of spotty internet service costs more than a year of residential DSL, you can be sure that exhibitors are searching for an alternative. So far, CCPI has resisted the trend to move its convention centers from hardwired ethernet to wireless WiFI networking, and over the next few years, as broadband WiMAX networks become established nationwide, CCPI’s business model will go the way of the dinosaurs… just like Brigadoon’s dial-up market.
So much for the vision thing.
Still, despite hiring a former pizza salesman with no technical experience to run his company in his absence, CCPI has managed to stay in business since 1997… so I suppose David Jr. deserves a little credit for that. So lets charitably give him two years of successful executive experience from 1997 to 1999, plus maybe half a year of experience for his 5-hour work-weeks since then.
So if you’re hiring David Irons Jr. based on his claim of 25 years of successful executive experience, here’s a more realistic assessment of his resume:
All Points Cable TV: 0 years of executive experience
Brigadoon.com: less than 1 year of unsuccessful executive experience
CCPI: 2.5 years of successful executive experience. (Maybe.)
As to the number of startups he’s formed, I’d say the answer is none… though I suppose an argument could be made that CCPI vaguely fits the description. But however you add up the numbers, there is no doubt that Irons has vastly less executive experience than he boastfully claims on any of his resumes.
Irons likes to point out that by comparison, Ron Sims has no private sector experience… but what Sims does have is nine years as executive of one of the largest county governments in the nation, managing a $3.4 billion budget while earning triple-A ratings from all three top credit agencies, even as many other municipal governments around the state teeter on the edge of insolvency.
While the Seattle Times may have failed to sufficiently dissect Irons’ resume for its readers, there’s a reason why its normally Republican-leaning, strongly pro-business editorial board enthusiastically endorses Ron Sims, and soundly rejects the candidacy of his overmatched opponent. Of David Irons Jr. they write: “his resume and leadership skills pale in comparison.”
And that’s putting it charitably.