Gary S. Murray has assiduously avoided the spotlight in his 20-year business career, even as he made millions building and selling technology companies in the 1990s.
But his days in the background could be over. Murray has become a major player in the business community of Prince George's County and is taking steps that would increase his influence beyond the home base where he made his fortune and reputation.
Murray has plugged away for more than a decade -- building two $100 million businesses, forming a local venture capital firm and leading the county's economic development corporation -- all while going relatively unnoticed.
"My history is getting things started and letting it take on its own life," said Murray, whom local businesspeople and politicians have described as one of Prince George's best-kept secrets.
Murray in November was asked by Maryland Governor-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to help lead the administration's transition team. He focused on economic and technology development, and he worked to execute a smooth changeover for the state's business-related agencies. It was a position that will put him squarely in the sight of the state's broader business community, which has long complained of Annapolis's coolness toward business interests.
"He will help tear down the reputation Maryland has as being a business-neutral state at best and in some cases being hostile to business, which is extremely important," said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. "He's proven over a very successful career that he understands what is needed for success in the business world and how to tap into creativity and entrepreneurship."
Murray's appointment is in many ways symbolic of the Prince George's business community's struggle for recognition. . The county's service-based economy was largely ignored during Washington's technology boom, although Murray and other black residents built successful companies there.
Murray, 52, has deep roots in the area. He grew up in Northwest Washington and graduated from Howard University with an accounting degree in 1974. After working as an accountant in the District during a period in which clients felt comfortable telling his partners they would rather not have a black man working on their account, Murray moved to Prince George's, where he founded his companies and, along with his wife, Areather, raised three children.
He started his first company, Sylvest Management Systems Corp., in 1987. The Lanham computer systems and engineering company made it onto Black Enterprise magazine's annual list of the nation's largest black-owned businesses until he sold it to Federal Data Corp. in June 1997. At the time of the sale, the company's revenue topped $100 million. Murray used the money from the sale to finance e-commerce company TimeBridge Technologies Inc., which he sold to a South African company that agreed to assume $15 million in debt and pay $135 million in cash. He is also chairman and an investor in PlanGraphics Inc., a publicly owned information technology company based in Frankfort, Ky., and is on the board of advisers of Wise Technologies Inc., a Landover wireless Internet company operated by his son Gary S. Murray II.
He turned his cash from the TimeBridge deal into Landover-based Human Vision LLC, a venture capital firm built to "inject entrepreneurship and business ownership into layers of the social pyramid where they have heretofore been underrepresented." Murray grooms and mentors the handful of companies in his incubator at Tree Tops, the Landover high-tech building from which he operates.
"Young, growing companies don't just need an affordable space," he said. "It's more the intellectual capital that has to be passed on."
Murray began to operate in local politics this year by establishing We the People, a local citizens group that backed a slate of candidates for local races, most of whom lost. But Ehrlich -- Murray's choice for governor -- won.
Murray envisions We the People holding forums and disseminating information to help promote community discussion in Prince George's about topics such as increasing economic development and how to work together to support the public school system.
"We have to overcome the thought of saying it's always been this way so it should be this way," Murray said.
He has also worked to get Prince George's businesses involved in public education through his involvement with the school system's business advisory committee and by bringing groups of local students to his incubator to pique their interest in the business world.
Murray also is chairman of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp. and helped to establish a local technology council through which he has helped retain and attract businesses to the county by promoting its tech firms and creating strategies to entice international companies.
"With our proximity to the nation's capital -- an international capital -- this would be a natural place for international companies to locate and engage Washington," Murray said.
As a close adviser to Wayne K. Curry when Curry was county executive, Murray worked to give visitors a balanced portrait of Prince George's, where gated communities and $600,000 homes reflect the county's status as the most affluent black-majority county in the country.
Murray "has served in many important capacities in Prince George's County that position him to be a tremendous voice for the concerns and interests of Prince George's County business," said Wendi Williams, president and chief executive of the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce. "He is also very informed and effective, and with a transition like the transition we are undertaking, an informed, effective person will lead us to the best results."