Tech entrepreneur’s renovation of Hickory Hill signals new guard’s refashioning of D.C.
One day a few years ago, the construction trucks began arriving at the big white house on Chain Bridge Road.
The antiques, chintz-covered furniture and damask curtains were long gone. So were the copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln, the framed letters from Jefferson and Washington, and the big leather club chair that sat in the office of Robert F. Kennedy when he was attorney general.
The new owner of one of Washington’s most famous houses had hired workers to rip out the electrical system, the plumbing and the hand-carved molding and strip the walls to their very studs. Grass was flattened. The graceful trees that gave Hickory Hill its name were left untouched, but more than a dozen others had to be removed.
Alan J. Dabbiere — a tech millionaire with a low profile and deep pockets — arrived here in 2006 with no job and few local contacts, fresh from two years living with his wife and the first of his four children on his 115-foot Italian yacht.
Since then, his mobile management company, Airwatch, which barely existed four years ago, has gone on to remarkable success in commercial industry and the public sector. In his private life, Dabbiere joined the boards of the Potomac School and the Inova Health Foundation. And after plunking down $8.2 million, he became the steward of Hickory Hill, the Georgian estate in McLean, Va., where Kennedy and his family once lived.
Once upon a time in Camelot, the Kennedys of Hickory Hill held salons to debate the pressing issues of the day, and power was the coin of the realm. Dabbiere’s speedy rise to Washington’s upper echelon is testament to a larger evolution: Once a town whose bright stars were government leaders, the nation’s capital has become a moneyed metropolis where entrepreneurs whose wealth is often amassed by doing business with the government are the new elite.
Dabbiere, 52, represents a new breed in the Washington region. Over the past 30 years, an influx of deep-pocketed CEOs, executives and company founders have helped drive the transformation of the area from a buttoned-down capital into the most highly educated and affluent place in the country.
They may see the nation’s capital as “the epicenter of everything,” as one of Dabbiere’s colleagues put it, but they’re not necessarily interested in politics. Rather, they’re creating and selling companies in fields such as biotech, cybersecurity, cloud computing and data mining. If they sell to the federal government, they’re more likely to see Uncle Sam as another client, rather than as a platform to change the world.
In recent years, the Washington area has seen a dramatic rise in “1-percenters,” households that make about $400,000 or more. Their ranks have jumped 65 percent in the past decade, from 32,000 people to 53,000. That growth has spawned a plethora of high-end retail establishments, restaurants that serve $22 cocktails and $110-a-night pet spas with doggie lap pools.
Local wealth managers have descended upon Washington in droves in the past three years, attracted by industry research such as Capgemini’s Metro Wealth Index, which recently estimated that the number of high-net-worth residents in the region has grown since 2008 from 127,000 to 166,000. (In that study, “high net worth” was defined as investable assets of more than $1 million, excluding the value of a primary home and collectibles.)
These advisers say that many clients are business owners who have started and sold their own companies, some multiple times.
“Over the past 10 years or a little bit more, the growth of entrepreneurship in Washington has exploded,” said Douglas Wolford, the president and chief operating officer of Convergent Wealth Advisors. “We talk to dozens and dozens of people in any given month who are selling businesses, or they’ve already built and sold a business. . . . Back in the late ’80s, this was a Podunk-y place when it came to wanting to start a business. Not so anymore.”
The advisory firm, based in Potomac, Md., has about $11 billion under management, including the assets of more than 100 local entrepreneurs who have started and sold companies and are each now worth more than $10 million, Wolford said.
Many of these newly rich are tight-lipped about their money and unlikely to make an ostentatious display of it, Wolford said. This is particularly true within the defense contracting industry, which boomed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It really would be awkward if you rolled up in your ‘phat’ Bentley to the Department of Defense,” Wolford said. “It’s stealth wealth in Washington, D.C. You do not know who’s got money. It’s partly the culture of Washington and partly the fact that more and more really wealthy people are focused on maintaining their privacy.”
In Dabbiere’s case, he was floating on his yacht — he prefers to call it a “boat” — somewhere in the Mediterranean in 2005 when he and his wife, Ashley Dabbiere, pulled out an atlas to decide where to settle down.
Then in his mid-40s, Dabbiere had become a millionaire after taking public the first company he founded, an Atlanta supply-chain logistics firm called Manhattan Associates.
He was ready to start his next venture. He and Ashley, a former media executive, talked about London. They talked about Paris. They talked about Rome and New York. In the end, they picked the Washington area for its “quality of life,” good schools and thriving tech scene, Dabbiere said. Plus, as the son of a Navy lawyer, he had lived in Arlington for a time as a small boy.
“I didn’t view Northern Virginia as a company town, a government town; I viewed it as a great technology center,” Dabbiere said. “I was clearly thinking I’d get very involved in the technology community here . . . and it was a real draw to living in this area.”
He knew, however, that any company he started or built would probably end up doing at least some business with the federal government.
“Even the more entrepreneurial, smart people here tended to be a bit more government focused,” he said. “Wasn’t it Willie Sutton, the bank robber, who said: ‘Why do you rob banks? Because that’s where the money is.’ ”
Just as he and his wife were moving into their $3 million home in McLean in early 2006, Dabbiere spotted his next opportunity. One of his former proteges at Manhattan Associates, John Marshall, then in his early 30s, needed help with his company, a hot-spot provider called Wandering WiFi. Dabbiere bought into the business but quickly realized that coffee-shop WiFi had limited potential. He had his eye on a bigger prize — the “ruggedized mobile devices” that would shortly evolve into the world’s billion smartphones.
Dabbiere’s war room for his company’s assault on the federal business once monopolized by BlackBerrys is a nondescript office on Elm Street in McLean, not far from his current home. Airwatch — the mobile-device management company he heads, which has grown in the last four years from 30 employees to more than 1,500 — has a huge and shiny headquarters in the Atlanta suburbs. The company grew so quickly that it enveloped Wandering WiFi, but Dabbiere has kept its headquarters in the Southern city where it was born.
When he’s not on the road, Dabbiere works in McLean, behind a carved wooden desk where nearly every available inch of space is covered with neatly layered pages from yellow legal pads.
“It’s a never-ending to-do list,” he said with a slightly embarrassed laugh. Dabbiere has the ready smile and watchful eyes of a politician, but politics doesn’t interest him. He majored in chemistry at Indiana University and later got his MBA there, too. After taking Manhattan Associates public in 1998 — with an initial public offering of $375 million — he could have retired permanently.
Instead, he became an evangelist for mobile.
For much of its early life, Airwatch managed heavy hand-held devices used by such companies as FedEx. But then the iPhone happened, and Android happened, and the iPad happened, and commercial enterprises around the country were looking for safe ways for their employees to use the devices for work.
Airwatch developed a management system for smartphones that allows employers to send out documents securely and gives them the ability to “wipe” a smartphone remotely if it’s lost or stolen. By 2011, the company was managing devices for big companies such as Home Depot and Macy’s; it’s now managing nine of the top 10 retailers.
But there was another frontier yet to be explored: the U.S. government.
“Alan lived in D.C., and he knew the market and the opportunity was there,” said Marshall, Airwatch’s chief executive. “He said, ‘These smartphones are going to be everywhere in the government, and they’re going to have to be managed.’ ”
The federal government has been far slower than commercial industry to adopt smart devices because of concerns about security, long preferring to stick with the tried-and-true BlackBerry, but in the past year that has changed. Deltek, a Herndon, Va.-based company that researches government contracting, estimates that the federal budget for mobile-communications funding will be about $757 million in 2014.
“This is a new space, and this whole space has been emerging in just the last four years. Before that it was all BlackBerry, all the time,” said Ojas Rege, vice president of strategy for MobileIron, a Silicon Valley company now jostling with Airwatch for contracts. “In the last year or so, you’ve seen the federal government doubling down on mobile. . . . We expect federal to be our highest growth market for the next three years.”
In 2011, Dabbiere knew little about federal contracting. So he hired a guide: Mark Williams, an old Washington hand who had worked on behalf of Silicon Valley firms in the District for more than 20 years. With him on board, Airwatch began raking in deals to secure phones for the House of Representatives, federal district courts across the country and the Army Corps of Engineers. Then, last fall, it scored another big hit: providing the mobile management software for the Department of Veterans Affairs as part of a $9.2 million contract.
Federal work is “a real focus for the company,” Dabbiere said, and it has helped drive Airwatch’s business to double each year since 2010. Airwatch got an infusion of $200 million in venture-capital funding this year, and Dabbiere hopes to take it public in the next six to 18 months, he said.
Since his arrival in Washington, Dabbiere has tried to maintain a fairly low profile, which became a challenge when he decided to put in a bid on the house up the street.
The Kennedy aura
The McLean neighborhood where Dabbiere and his wife moved in 2006 had long been a bastion of Washington’s old-guard elite — pundit Patrick J. Buchanan, Gen. Colin L. Powell and former vice president Richard B. Cheney have all called it home.
In the middle sits Hickory Hill, a stately white-brick mansion on six acres, a property imbued with history dating back to its earliest days, when it was owned by the forebears of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
But it was the Kennedys who gave the house its cachet. The home was owned in the 1950s by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, who later sold it to his brother Robert and Robert’s wife, Ethel. Their family would eventually grow to include 11 children.
During the Kennedy administration, the family held raucous parties there, as well as high-minded salons called the “Hickory Hill seminars,” where Cabinet members and other government officials would debate issues from poverty to the existence of God. “The purpose here was to remind public officials that a world existed beyond their in-boxes,” historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in his book “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.”
The house was always filled with luminaries, according to Schlesinger’s son, Stephen Schlesinger, a writer who recalls sitting in the living room, watching Robert Kennedy grilling diplomat W. Averell Harriman about the Vietnam War. The salons represented “something that had never really been tried in quite the same way, and so there was a sense of excitement and titillation and intellectual bravado about it,” Stephen Schlesinger said.
After her husband’s death, Ethel Kennedy stayed in Hickory Hill to raise her children, but like the Kennedy myth itself, the house began to fray around the edges. Neighbors could always tell when warmer weather was on the way because air-conditioning units appeared in all the windows.
As Washington changed — morphing from a town in which most of the people were employed by the federal government to a world capital that many businesses fed off of — so did McLean.
“The whole neighborhood has literally transformed in the last 15 years,” said William A. Delphos, a neighbor who heads a firm that helps clients get government money for overseas development projects. The new guard — featuring “technology players, hedge fund players, Internet security,” as Delphos describes it — moved into the modest ranchers where association heads and former CIA officers had lived, tore them down and built larger houses.
In 2003, Ethel Kennedy put the house up for sale — for a reported $25 million, five times its assessed value. It lingered on the market and underwent several price reductions before Dabbiere bought it in 2009 and began a near-total transformation, leaving little more than its recognizable facade, irking some who felt it should have been preserved as a museum.
“From a historian’s viewpoint, it’s sad,” said Sioux Oliva, a historian who archived the house’s contents in 2003 and 2004. “It would have been an incredible tourist attraction.”
Dabbiere is reluctant to discuss the four-year project in detail, and indeed, in its early days, he went to great lengths to conceal his association with the property. The deed lists Marshall, his colleague, as the grantee and head of the Hickory Hill Trust.
Dabbiere said he was attracted at first to the wide, expansive lawn — unusual in the built-up Washington suburbs — but said the Kennedy association was “a negative.” The extensive renovations were necessary, he said, because the home had not been maintained and had no central air, no garage and a kitchen that was used by a cook to serve formal meals in a dining room.
“It needed to be changed in a way to fit life today,” he said. “Families don’t live like that anymore.”
As the project has progressed, he said, he has grown to love other aspects of the house’s history and tried to remain faithful in the renovations to its origins, acquiring Virginia slate for the roof and hiring a well-
regarded restoration architect, John Milner.
Dabbiere insisted, more than once, that the property’s Kennedy heritage has complicated his desire for privacy. “Some people like to own things because they are well known,” he said. “That wasn’t our intent.”
Making the sale
One recent day in Arlington, Va., Dabbiere stood in a dimly lit hotel ballroom filled with techies and ex-military types in trim buzz cuts. He was one of the headliners of a conference called the Military Smartphones and Handheld Devices Symposium.
Taking the microphone, Dabbiere — in a navy-blue suit and red tie— came off as a peppy salesman. His presentation was called “Future Direction of Mobile Device Management for Government.”
Security breaches on mobile devices “don’t happen very often,” he said, “but when they do, you’re on the front page of the news, and nobody wants that.”
Afterward, Dabbiere conferred with Williams, his adviser, who had been watching his performance at the back of the room, arms crossed.
“I thought it went over very well,” Williams said, “but you should have used STIG more.” He was referring to the Security Technical Implementation Guides that govern technology installation at the Defense Department — and which would have been music to the ears of a room full of D.C. technocrats.
“Guess I’m not a full ‘govie’ yet,” Dabbiere said.
Nevertheless, after his speech, he was surrounded by representatives from an alphabet soup of federal agencies — FCC, DARPA, ONR — shaking hands, talking business, exchanging cards. Dabbiere seemed exhilarated.
“I think employing people and building companies is an important thing to do for the country,” he said. “I really get a kick out of that.”
Julie Tate, Magda Jean-Louis, Jennifer Jenkins and Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.