The Top Place To Meet And Eat
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 1998; Page F12
Two years ago, the managers of the Tower Club in Tysons Corner worried that its main dining room, the Commonwealth Room, looked too vast and antiseptic, like a bowling alley with silverware.
So they brought in silk screens, ficus trees and plants potted in Chinese urns and made the room seem more intimate and clubby.
But Tower Club members complained.
"One woman said, 'Now I can't see who's on the other side of the dining room,' " recalled Ardell Fleeson, one of the club's two membership directors.
The complaint came at breakfast; by lunchtime the screens were removed, the sightlines restored, and the by-invitation-only club had retained its status as the most exclusive "see-and-be-seen" venue among the region's high-tech highflyers.
Sprawled on the top floor of the 17-story Tycon Tower -- the highest point in Fairfax County -- the nine-year-old Tower Club provides a three-meals-a-day study in local executive anthropology. In technology circles, one member jokes, the Tower Club's daily mix is the best indicator of merger and acquisition activity.
With a concentrated membership of technology executives -- sprinkled with a helping of lawyers, headhunters, brokers and venture capitalists -- the club has become the region's unofficial incubator of technology dealmaking, gossip-mongering and glad-handing. Its growth and stature mirror those of the burgeoning local technology sector itself, members said.
Likewise, critics said, its growing cachet embodies the kind of old-boy, closed-society mind-set the Washington technology sector needs to shed.
'Our Anchor Point'
At its inception in 1989, the Tower Club's membership of 1,350 was heavily composed of the developers and bankers who prospered during the Northern Virginia real estate boom of the 1980s.
But as the real estate market collapsed at the turn of the decade, club membership dropped to about 1,000. Rumors circulated that the club was going out of business.
Today, membership has swelled again, to 1,200, with an influx of technology executives -- particularly those from federal information technology companies, telecommunications firms and Internet start-ups.
The club's emergence signifies "the maturing of our high-tech industry," said Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University and one of the region's biggest technology boosters. "People are seeing the value of broader-based networks instead of a series of independent entities," said Merten, who eats at the club twice a week and sits on the Tower Club advisory board of governors.
The Tower Club, situated halfway between Dulles International Airport and Washington and accessible from suburban Maryland, represents a regional nexus for technology networking.
Late last year, for example, when leaders of the high-tech communities in Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District wanted to discuss the formation of a regional technology consortium, they met at the Tower Club.
"This has become our anchor point," said club member Kathy Clark, chief executive of Landmark Systems Corp. "If you say let's meet at the Tower Club, everyone knows where it is, and it gives the meeting credibility."
It also can imbue a meeting with intrigue, which can be an effective strategic tool, executives said.
"It's a great place to spread misinformation," said Paul Lombardi, chief executive of DynCorp, the Reston-based product and services contractor. "If you want to stay ahead of the competition and get them to assume you're doing a deal with some other company, all you have to do is show up at the Tower Club with someone from that company."
Tower Club members tend to be entrenched members of the local technology scene. Last Tuesday by 12:30 p.m., the Commonwealth Room was half-filled with tech executives, some who took several minutes to zigzag among tables on their way in and out.
Like much of Northern Virginia's executive class, their ranks were demographically homogeneous: of the 47 people dining, 46 were white, one was Asian; 43 were male.
The Dress Code
With white-clothed tables and king-of-the-world views, the main dining room aptly reflects its constituency. Its 21 tables are spaced at tasteful distances to hinder eavesdropping. Staff members dutifully address each member by name, using "Doctor" when appropriate. Everyone must wear a jacket in the main dining room at both lunch and dinner (breakfast is "business casual"). This alienates some younger tech entrepreneurs, who complain that the dress code offends their industry's dressed-down and freewheeling sensibilities.
"A lot of deals are being made by people wearing jeans," said Raul Fernandez, 31, chief executive of Proxicom Inc., who prefers his power meals at the nearby Ritz-Carlton at Tysons Corner. (A Ritz spokesman said jeans were discouraged, but grudgingly permitted.)
Others head to nearby Italian joints, such as Primi Priati and Da Dominico's. Sam and Harry's and Morton's steakhouses have followings as well.
"Can you think of any 'power place' in [Silicon] Valley that has mandatory shirt-and-tie policy?" Fernandez asks.
Fleeson hears few complaints about the dress code but said the club will relax the rules if members want to meet in a private conference room.
Additionally, she said, the atrium area -- a buffet near the entrance -- requires no jackets, only collared shirts. She calls this the "we-don't-want-to-impress-you" space, as opposed to the Commonwealth Room, or "the-see-and-be-seen" room.
But as a rule, "we will never relax the dress code to the level of jeans," Fleeson said. Those who are conscious of the Tower Club's cachet, she said, are willing to do business in suits.
"People accept what we are," Fleeson said. "This is a private club. It's not like we're a government-funded operation where people have a right to complain."
But some complain anyway.
"As a regional technology network, we need to be more open, more egalitarian and less grown-up," said one thirtysomething Internet entrepreneur who asked not to be identified because many of his friends and business partners belong to the club. "The Tower Club represents none of these things."
Rob McGovern, the 36-year-old chief executive of CareerBuilder Inc., said many hard-core techies show an anti-establishment strain. The Tower Club decidedly does not.
"It's a dealmaking kind of place, not the kind of place where people go to discuss the future of Java," said McGovern, who belongs to an informal, underground "Cigar Club" of about 20 younger tech executives. Each month, they meet at an undisclosed hotel and talk tech.
Still, for any high-level high-techie in Northern Virginia, it's hard to stay out of the Tower Club. It's worth noting, for example, that McGovern himself is a member. "I joined because I kept getting invited there by people, and I wanted to be able to reciprocate," he said.
Fleeson said the Tower Club has "more of a civic orientation and less of a snob orientation."
She is working to draw younger entrepreneurs. Inductees younger than 35 pay only a $750 upfront initiation deposit, half of what older applicants are charged -- without a corporate discount. There also are monthly dues, which range from $64 to $139.
To gain entry, prospective members must be invited, or "sponsored," by an existing Tower Clubber. Nominees are forwarded to the admissions committee, an anonymous group designated by the club's 41-person advisory board. The nominees are usually accepted -- "we're trying to grow the club," Fleeson said -- and are extended an invitation. Upon receipt of the invitation, the nominee has two weeks to respond. Otherwise, he, and more occasionally she, cannot be reconsidered for one year.
For companies new to the area, the club can provide one-stop shopping for vital introductions. In 1993, when MicroStrategy Inc. moved into its initial offices on the 10th floor of the Tycon Building, co-founder Sanju Bansal recalls that he immediately tried to gain membership upstairs.
"I said to Ardell, 'Listen, we're a small company downstairs and we'd love to join,' " Bansal said.
"She said, 'That's great, go away.'
"Then I went back a second time, and she said, 'Go away' again.
"Finally, I asked her a third time, and she said, 'Okay.' "
She even waived the initiation fee. (Fleeson said she has no recollection of any of these exchanges.)
Five years later, the data warehousing firm projects that it will generate $100 million in annual revenue in 1998 and does substantial business at the club.
Co-founder and chief executive Michael J. Saylor alternately frequents the atrium -- with peers, employees and friends -- and the Commonwealth Room, clad in a suit, with potential customers.
"We leverage [the proximity] as a corporate credibility additive," said Bansal, showing exquisite proficiency in business-speak.
Bansal, 32, isn't bothered by the dearth of young businesspeople at the club. "It's important to meet people in positions of authority, and typically, they are not in their thirties." He calls Fleeson one of the local technology community's "hidden powers." She is the keeper of the list, he said, part-time booster and matchmaker, full-time networker and secret keeper. Clearly, she relishes her roles. Tireless and ubiquitous, she is an incessant table surfer.
"Someone once told me I'm a yenta for technology," Fleeson said.
She has this fantasy: She will be an old woman attending the region's annual high-tech awards dinner.
"I want to be called to the podium with my walker," Fleeson said. "And I want to get an award for all the people I've introduced over the years."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company