These are heady times for Ted Leonsis. The marketing magician at America Online is flying high as the newly anointed proprietor of the Washington Capitals hockey team. Literally.
On a recent evening, Leonsis, 43, is in a Learjet to Buffalo for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup hockey championships. Business partners Jonathan Ledecky, 41, a multimillionaire venture capitalist, and Dick Patrick, 52, an old hockey hand, are also in the luxurious passenger compartment.
Leonsis and Ledecky giggle; they guffaw; they chaw on cheese and fruit; they slap fresh ideas for marketing the Capitals back and forth as if they were pucks.
"How about a wrestling-hockey night?" Leonsis suggests.
"We need a lawyers night," says Ledecky.
Turning to Patrick, Ledecky asks, "When can we take them out to play golf?"
Patrick gently explains that the hockey players might not want to play golf with the owners.
Taking a break from the banter, Leonsis reaches for a baggie filled with allergy pills, an inhalator and other medications. "This stuff has saved my life," he says, putting drops in his eyes.
"We've got a captive audience in-between periods," Ledecky continues.
"Yeah, cheerleaders on ice," Leonsis says, tapping his hands on a table.
"Ted," says Ledecky, "have you ever noticed that when you are finished talking to somebody, you start tapping your hands?"
The thin, prepped-up Ledecky--blue blazer, khakis, wispy blond surfer hair, gold wire rims--is still getting to know the larger Leonsis--blue blazer, khakis, dark hair and beard, white-collared blue-and-white-striped shirt, gold tie. The two men have been friends about a year. On May 15 they bought the Washington Capitals from Abe Pollin, and also purchased 40 percent of Pollin's Washington Sports & Entertainment, which includes the Wizards, the Mystics, MCI Center, U.S. Airways Arena and Ticketmaster. If all goes according to plan, tomorrow they'll write very large checks to Pollin.
Sources close to the deal say the trio is forking over a little more than $200 million. Leonsis will own 65 percent, Ledecky 30 percent and Patrick, who is president of the Capitals, 5 percent.
Fifty-two minutes after taking off from Dulles, the jet lands in Buffalo. A limo zips the three caballeros to Marine Midland Arena and the men step into a deafening throng. It's electric! It's pulsing! It's the Stanley Cup championship series and Buffalo is boffo bango berserko!
"This," says a beaming Leonsis, stretching out his hands. "is great. This is what I want."
For now, what he gets is a long wait in a long line of shrieking Sabres fans.
A Clear Vision
For Theodore John Leonsis, life is a perpetual two-step: Decide what you want, then get it.
He loves to tell this story. His first day on the job at America Online in 1994, Leonsis asked President Steve Case, "How do I get office furniture?"
"Work late," Case said.
Now, nearly six years, plenty of furniture and hundreds of millions of dollars later, Leonsis is asked: How does someone get a good parking place at AOL's Dulles headquarters?
"Get in early," he says.
On this Monday morning, he's addressing a gathering of 240 or so America Online employees at Westfields Conference Center in Chantilly.
"This is a great time to be alive," Leonsis, tieless in white shirt and khaki pants, tells the adoring crowd. He's a big man. Not tall. Big. He doesn't shout. He speaks soothingly, authoritatively, like a professor, patiently enunciating each syl-la-ble of each word, occasionally lapsing into a New England dialect--"Cuber" for "Cuba," for instance.
He rallies the troops with rhetoric and reassurance:
"We're in the Bronze Age of media development," he says. "I have a very clear vision."
And with humor:
"Knock knock," Leonsis sings to the group.
"Who's there?" they call back in unison.
"Amy Fisher," Leonsis says.
"Bang!" Leonsis says, and everybody laughs. His point: In the online business, you're dead before you know it.
And with a sense of destiny:
"We will be the world's most valuable media franchise," he says. "We'll get there by being indispensable to people."
The company's sagging stock price is no reason to panic, he says.
He answers a few questions, shakes some hands, then drives the 12 miles--in the fast lane--from the conference center to AOL headquarters in his money green Jaguar XJ12.
He searches for a parking space.
He's a worker and he's a listmaker.
Talk to friends or colleagues of Leonsis and they will ask if you have heard about The List. It's a 2 1/2-page document titled "101 Things to Do." It is a compilation of goals Leonsis hopes to achieve before he dies. It is at the center of his life. And it speaks volumes about what matters to him.
In 1983, he was on an Eastern Airlines flight from Miami to Atlanta. The landing gear failed and the captain told everyone that in 30 minutes the plane would be forced to make an emergency landing. Leonsis thought the end was near.
"I didn't want to die," he says. "I told myself that if I live, I'm going to play offense."
He didn't pray to God, but he did start making a list of things he wanted to do before he croaked. The first two dozen were athletics-related. "I didn't realize how much I loved sports," he says.
The list runs from the ridiculous--Do Stand-Up Comedy Routine at a Comedy Club--to the sublime--Have a Great-Grandchild. It's a Me Me Me list. Only one item, No. 99--Have an Impact on a Charity--is other-oriented.
The charity he has chosen is Best Buddies, an organization that assists people with mental retardation. "I've worked like a Trojan," he says. This year, his wife, Lynn, is chairman of the fund drive. "I've raised a ton of money," Leonsis says. "I think it's a great cause."
And he's given generously to his alma mater, Georgetown University. "I'm the youngest person in the school's history to give a million bucks," he says, enunciating every syllable.
As of January 1999, Leonsis had checked off 67 of the items on his list.
"He's blasting right through them," Case says. "He wants to live life fully. He sets targets and he achieves them."
Leonsis is proud of his accomplishments. "I want to hand out copies at my funeral," he says, "and have people say, 'I was with him when he did Number 12' "--which happens to be Catch a Foul Ball. He caught one off the bat of Mookie Wilson at the New York Mets' spring training camp.
Other friends, he says, have made their own to-do lists. "Now when they mark something off," he says, "they call me and brag about it."
Man in Motion
In the cool, machine-friendly halls of AOL, people call out to Leonsis.
To him, the company feels like a college campus these days. "And I'm the old man."
He speaks to staffers here and there, then makes straight for his flat-panel-screen computer in a small, temporary office. He's waiting to move into a grander space in a new building that is under construction.
Since Leonsis went to work for AOL in 1994, the company has grown from fewer than 500 to more than 14,000 employees, from 700,000 to 17 million members, from $90 million to $6 billion in revenue and from $400 million to $120 billion in market capitalization. The stock has split six times. Leonsis's net worth--$500 million to $900 million--goes hand in glove with AOL stock.
He's participated in one of the most extraordinary company explosions in American business history.
At 11:30 he chats on the phone with the editor of Inc. magazine. Leonsis has agreed to speak at an Inc. conference for successful companies. To be included on the roster, a company has to have been in business longer than five years. Such firms are known as "pre-Internet." In his speech Leonsis will answer the question: How Do I Adapt to the Digital Economy?
As he talks, he flips his wedding ring around on the table near a stack of books. One title--"Children of Paradise: Successful Parenting for Prosperous Families," by Lee Hausner.
Also in the bookcase is a photo of a young Ted Leonsis--willow thin, wide tie--with his parents. His mother died in 1988; his father lives in Vero Beach, Fla.
Leonsis says that he's in good health. He's on an all-protein diet. For lunch he picks at a plate of pork and provolone cheese in the company cafeteria. He gained weight, he explains, because of his allergy medicine.
At 1 p.m., he's back in his office to participate in an hour-long conference call. He sits at a small table, speaking into a speaker phone. There is something so quaint about squawk-box telephony in the middle of the never-resting, new-edge nerve center that is AOL. The tedious meeting, conducted by monotonic businessmen spewing forth boring numbers, is top secret, hush-hush. The men--like Boy Scouts in a clubhouse--even use a code name for a large omnivorous computer software company.
Leonsis picks his teeth with a folded Post-It. He says little as others drone on.
At one point, he turns his back on the conference call to rifle through a recent rash of e-mail. Though he is notorious for such multi-tasking, this time it may say more about the nature of the meeting than about the nature of Leonsis. From his briefcase, he pulls a brush and runs it through his dark hair.
Looking on from a shelf is a bust of Elvis. Leonsis shares a birthday with the King--Jan. 8. When Leonsis was single, he often toted the statue with him into bars. He would have "Elvis" send drinks to young ladies. "It was this goofy fun thing," he explains later.
He returns to the speaker phone. He gulps a bottle of water. He turns and tosses two folded Post-Its and the empty water bottle into a trash can six feet away. Three for three. He has a nice set shot.
Just at the point he seems to be totally checked out from the meeting, he breaks into the scratchy, numbing-numbers conversation and boils the whole drab proceeding down to primal questions. Yes or no? Deal or no deal? He needs more information to make a decision, he says. Everyone agrees, thanks him and hangs up.
Then fwooom, he jumps into his Jag and cruises eastward to AOL's old headquarters in Vienna for a barbecue to celebrate the acquisition of a new company. Under shade trees and a large tent, a caterer offers burgers, dogs, enchiladas, cole slaw, beer and canned sodas. Leonsis opts for a cheeseburger, no bread.
Don't worry about the plummeting stock price, he assures the folks during a rah-rah address. "Don't get your personhood tied up in a number you can't control."
Then he calls for questions. "Ted," one programmer pipes up, "do we get Caps tickets?"
As he drives away, several employees watch. In the air is the smell of Sterno flames and the sound of summer rain.
An Internet Showman
For the only child of a waiter and a secretary "whose best year was $28,000," Ted Leonsis has amassed a pretty sweet estate.
He is constantly reminding himself, and everyone else, of his humble beginnings.
As a youngster, he lived in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood. It was there he learned to love sports. He played basketball and street hockey with friends, and one of his most treasured childhood memories is his first trip to Yankee Stadium with his father. "I had never seen grass that green or dirt that brown," he recalls.
His parents were concerned enough about the neighborhood, though, to move the family to Lowell, Mass., where they had lived before he was born.
"My destiny," Leonsis says, "was to bag groceries at a Demoulas Market, move up to cashier, then manager of the produce department, then, if I worked really hard, I would get to manage a store."
At one point he also drove a forklift at night and worked in a dress factory during the day.
A high school teacher, he says, once told his parents, "I don't think Ted is college material." But Leonsis was determined to prove her, and everyone else, wrong. He went to Georgetown University.
He worked his way through school, he says, as an assistant in the office of then-Rep. Paul Tsongas--another Greek kid from Lowell--and as a shoe salesman at a small store on Wisconsin Avenue.
He played intramural basketball, but mostly he studied and worked. He sighs, "I saw friends doing nothing."
After he graduated in 1977, Leonsis took a job in the public relations department of Wang Labs. John Cunningham knew Leonsis at Wang. "Ted is an interesting guy, a curious guy, a bright guy," he says. "He loves the limelight, more so than most people. He always liked to be hanging around people who were relatively important. That motivates him probably as much as anything."
In 1981, Leonsis left Wang to start his own publishing company. In 1983 he sold that firm. Two years later he bought it back and launched Redgate Communications, a small digital marketing enterprise that put catalogues on CD-ROMs.
Steve Case had breakfast with Leonsis in 1993 and decided to buy Redgate, which turned out to be AOL's first in a long line of acquisitions. With Redgate came Leonsis, who became AOL's resident marketer.
Jeff Parsons, 44, was the chief financial officer at Redgate. He says, "Ted has a gift, a special visionary gift that has propelled him. He wants to bring people along and enlighten them."
"Ted gets it right away," says Leonsis's best friend, Vincent Pica, a group president of Prudential Securities. "That's his gift. He can look at lots of different pieces, gets the relationship. Put insight, energy and brilliance together, you usually get pretty great things."
Case calls Leonsis "the P.T. Barnum of the Internet."
"He's a showman," Case says.
"Steve was the young kid, and I was the wild man," says Leonsis.
Leonsis is grateful to AOL and all the glory and riches it has brought him. Given the overwhelming demands of owning a major league sports franchise, he asked Case's permission before buying the Caps.
Hard Times, Good Fortune
Ted Leonsis is constantly reminding himself, and everyone else, that he is a man of great fortune.
"My wife, Lynn, is a very beautiful woman," Leonsis is fond of saying.
They met in Vero Beach. She worked at a financial brokerage firm and did occasional modeling. He was struggling with Redgate Communications. They married in August 1987.
"I was the aggressor," Leonsis says. A dozen years later, "she is a very strong presence in my life."
Leonsis tells this story: Lynn told Ted recently they were going to the Washington Opera Ball. Tonight, she instructed him, you're going to be a grown-up. You're going to wear a tuxedo, and there will be no talk of hockey or basketball.
"We get to the ball," Leonsis says, "And she's holding my hand."
After the ball, the couple attended a dinner at the residence of the French ambassador. She stepped away for just a moment and Leonsis spotted Daniel Snyder, new owner of the Washington Redskins. Leonsis walked over to Snyder and introduced himself. The photographer snapped a photo, and Leonsis said, off the cuff, "You wouldn't think a country that worships Jerry Lewis could throw a party like this."
The quip was printed in this newspaper.
"Monday morning," Leonsis laughs, "Lynn sees the newspaper. She says, 'I'm with you the whole night; I leave you for two minutes. And look!' "
"I'm responsible for the domestic front," says Lynn, 40, as she shows a reporter around their immaculate, plushly appointed home in Great Falls. She has short blond hair. Her blue eyes match her blue Oxford cloth shirt, untucked over black pants. The couple is building a new, larger home down the road. They're also constructing a new beach home in Florida. "I'm somewhat meticulous. I like to keep the house in order."
She is assisted by domestic helpers. "But I still make sure everything around the home gets done," she says, "so that when Ted gets home he can relax."
His weekends are devoted to games and movies with his wife and two young children; sometimes they slip off to the Florida home, and Leonsis takes his motorboat, Fully Vested, for a spin.
As Lynn Leonsis points out architectural accents, she says that she and Ted have a lot in common. They are second-generation immigrants--he, Greek; she, Swedish. They grew up relatively poor. Her father was a Fuller Brush salesman in Chicago. She remembers their first date. "He was so sweet," she says. "We talked about business a lot."
There were some tough times early on. In the winter of 1988, Redgate didn't have enough money to make its payroll. They had to mortgage some land they owned in Vero Beach. Lynn was pregnant with the couple's first child. Several days after the child was born, Leonsis's mother died. At the funeral in Lowell, Leonsis realized that he could very well lose his company.
Jeff Parsons also remembers that moment: "I called him and said, 'I don't think Christmas is going to be too good, Ted. We've got $7 in our corporate checking account.' "
"I had about 30 seconds of self-pity," recalls Leonsis.
He called a potential investor who wrote an angel's check a couple of days later for $500,000. The company turned around and by 1994 had 120 folks on staff and reported annual billings of $70 million.
The angel, Leonsis says, laughing, has "made like $40 million on his investment."
Leonsis has made much more.
New Roles, Less Influence
No. 65 on The List: Own, or be a partner in, a sports franchise.
No. 17: Win an NBA championship.
And No. 19? Win a Stanley Cup championship.
Once he checks off No. 65, he'll be on his way. Meanwhile, he's keeping his day job.
While Leonsis has no doubt been one of the key shapers of AOL, in more recent years he has moved away from the company's core and focused on side businesses.
When he first arrived, he was running AOL's online service. Then he became the head of AOL Studios, helping to develop internet shows and other original content. But when companies began lining up to pay AOL to put their content online, it became clear the company didn't need to develop its own.
Bob Pittman, one of the creators of MTV and also a master marketer, and now the number two person at AOL, joined the company in 1996 as Leonsis's role became less central.
"Ted's particularly effective building things. He's a builder more than a manager," says Case. "Bob is a better manager in a variety of ways than Ted is, or I am."
Now Leonsis heads up what Pittman considers to be "the cool parts" of AOL--such as the instant messaging service ICQ, and the movie listing and ticketing service MovieFone. When asked about Leonsis's shifting responsibilities, Case replies, "Everybody's role has changed."
Will Leonsis be able to toggle among his many jobs, Case is asked. "He's kind of moonlighting," Case replies. "We think he can do both effectively."
"I have a great home life," Leonsis says. "I have a great work life at AOL. Sports teams have become the great third place."
Why take such a huge risk? Listmaker Leonsis ticks off three reasons. "One: I believe in the third place," he says. "Two: Nothing brings a city closer together . . . and three: It's a great diversification investment strategy, long term."
So what does the future hold? Will he ultimately forsake the online world for his sports teams? "I don't want to predict the future. I'm getting to do fun and big, important things at AOL."
Besides, he says, quoting someone else, "the best way to predict the future is to invent it."
Catering to the Fans
From time to time, Ted Leonsis logs on to AOL under the screen name WashingtonCaps and listens to users gripe about his hockey team. He takes notes. He says he thrives on the interaction with fans.
To Leonsis, his new toy is a golden opportunity to test the very latest, glitziest marketing techniques, using technology to allow fans to go straight to the owner.
He vows to carry a beeper during games at MCI Center, and if someone discovers that a restroom is out of toilet paper, he'll slide a new roll on the spindle himself.
Steve Case believes that Leonsis can revolutionize the game of hockey. "Two years from now, going to a hockey game will be more of an event," Case says.
"We want to make hockey cool," Ledecky says.
At the Stanley Cup game in Buffalo, Leonsis and Ledecky are astonished that fans are not allowed to go to their seats while the skaters are playing on the ice. That, they say as they stand in the corridor, is an outrage.
In their rink-side seats, they holler when there's a score and they take note of the crowd's reaction to videos on the large screen over center ice. Leonsis peppers Patrick--whose family has been involved in the National Hockey League forever--with questions.
"I'm only scared," Leonsis explains, "of what I don't know."
He's not afraid to speak his mind. At one point he tells Patrick that he will fire any player who loafs; at another point he says he probably wouldn't have traded Chris Webber from the Wizards, as Abe Pollin did. Leonsis loves the organ music. Washington Sports & Entertainment President Susan O'Malley "thinks our fans are more corporate," Leonsis says. "She doesn't think we need an organ. I think we need an organ."
Between periods, Leonsis meets with the owners--old and new--of the Sabres. He introduces himself to other hockey muckety-mucks. As he's leaving the swanky skybox, he pauses for a second in the crowded corridor.
"Sobering thought for the night," he says to Ledecky and Patrick. "Full arena, winning season, sold-out house, new building, $27 million payroll and they're still losing money."
Back in his seat, Leonsis is quiet for a while. He's thinking. He taps his hands on his knees.
CAPTION: "He was so sweet," Lynn Leonsis says of her first date with now-husband Ted, whose worth has ranged as high as $900 million. "We talked about business a lot."
CAPTION: Ted Leonsis, right, and partner Ted Ledecky at the May announcement by Abe Pollin that he was selling them the team and other interests for $200 million.