Infotech Pioneer Traces Diverse Career Path
Bill Witzel fondly recalls his successful Netplex days and his ties with local legend Mario Morino
"It's an awful stretch to say I helped build the industry," warns Bill Witzel, the legendary mentor of Legent founder Mario Morino and an infotech pioneer. But Witzel was present at the creation of what was likely the industry's first packaged software.
From the perspective of his ocean-front summer home, the low-profile Witzel, 67, reminisces about more than four decades of Netplex history, including 25 years as mentor to software entrepreneur Mario Morino.
Witzel was an equal partner in Morino Associates, which the two founded in 1970. Morino later merged the corporation with Duquesne Corp. to create Legent Corp., one of the Top 10 global software companies, recently acquired by Computer Associates. The company would have started out as WitMar, for Witzel and Mario, but the name was taken.
By 1970, Witzel had already started and sold a couple of companies; developed a football play-analysis and predictor system that was widely used in the pros (and on the side created his own betting system); and spent time on Wall Street as an industry guru and deal advisor. He had also served a stint in the Marines, played a couple seasons of minor league baseball, and earned a finance degree in 1953 from the University of Maryland, where he occasionally lectures. Finally, in semi-retirement, he took on Morino as his prot?g?.
The seeds for Witzel's success were sown at his first job at NCR in Richmond, Va., where his title was sales trainee but his function turned out to be systems thinking. "It was an electronic mechanical accounting machine business," he said. "You knocked on doors, made the approach, surveyed the accounting situation, designed the system and proposed it. You closed the sale. And then," he savors the irony, "you had to install the son-of-a-bitch."
Witzel was so good that when he left NCR in 1958 to return to Washington, the Richmond branch manager at rival IBM hosted a going away party. In retrospect, Witzel says, his move to the Council for Economic and Industrial Research -- which despite its name was Washington's seminal infotech company -- was also his move into the computer age. The original computerized government numbers cruncher and time-sharing pioneer, CEIR had already been taken public in Baltimore investment banker Alex. Brown's first technology deal.
Located off Arlington's Jefferson Davis Highway in the Tom Stone Iron Works building just south of the Pentagon, CEIR provided statistical services in support of 704, 709 and 7090 IBM computers.
Witzel helped land CEIR's first commercial contract: the long-defunct Washington-based Capital Airlines had already sunk several hundred thousand dollars with a Big 8 accounting firm to develop a system to optimize crew scheduling. The Big 8 solution described the ideal crew as one captain and one co-pilot, half an engineer and two and three-quarters flight attendants. Witzel booked the business, and after CEIR's computer finished its work, wisely rounded off the fractions.
By 1961, the entrepreneurial bug struck, and along with six colleagues, Witzel bought into Computer Concepts Inc. and became executive vice president. Computer Concepts' original software product was aimed at a government market in English-to-Russian machine translation technology, but it couldn't successfully compete with an Air Force-sponsored research program at Georgetown University.
In desperation, the company developed Frugal, which to Witzel's knowledge was the original commercial software package.
Witzel's job was to sell it: The first Frugal package went to Shell Oil for $8,500. But in a bellwether, Computer Concepts' second sale was a fixed-price Army contract. Up until that point, all software had been custom designed. Being able to use the same code for many clients, while charging premium market rates based on custom-developed code, ensured unheard-of levels of productivity and profitability. Frugal's margins, Witzel admits, "saved the company. Of course, the Army didn't know it was a package.
"We fixed the price with deliverable dates and penalty clauses. We won because we had the right price and were able to do the job in a very critical time for the Army." But the customer was oblivious to the company's strategy. "We didn't sell it as a package!" boasts Witzel.
Later, Witzel beat IBM for a contract to support the Pentagon's new budget system, which was the brainchild of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. He and Charlie Hitch, who later became the General Services Administration's Commissioner for Computers and Telecommunications, and their band of Whiz Kids modernized the Pentagon's budgeting process with the Planning, Program and Budget system -- the guts of which still exist today.
Winning the Planning, Program and Budget contract was a great moment: "By God, IBM never lost anything," Witzel said.
Charging on to the Playing Field
As Frugal took off, Witzel flew around the world selling it. And in the pre-headset and in-flight video era, he was awfully bored. That's when he launched his parallel excursion -- and great hobby -- sports information systems.
"I conceived of a way to use computers to prepare a team for its opponent's offense," he said. Witzel first showed it to University of Maryland football coach, Tom Nugent, who turned him over to a young assistant named Lee Corso, now of sports network ESPN fame. Although Corso liked the idea, his counterparts were afraid the computer would take over their jobs and they backed away.
So Witzel made a cold call to Washington Redskins Coach Bill McPeake, who thought Defensive Coach Ed Hughes could try it. Witzel refined the specs and Computer Concepts programmers prepared the system for the 1966 season.
"I think the team broke even," Witzel boasts, "but they were second to the Green Bay Packers in the league's defensive standings and everybody said, 'It must be the computer!'"
Witzel installed about eight systems during the next football season and sat in the boxes of coaches such as the Dallas Cowboys' Tom Landry and the Redskins' George Allen to watch their teams play.
Being on a first-name basis with the league's most respected coaches was a "great door-opener" for customer presentations, the ever-selling Witzel recalls.
A couple of years later he refined his second system, a draft choice predictor, which former Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams and assistant coach Ted Marchibroda used for draft picks. Although the rival Cowboys used an IBM system that cost about $300,000, Witzel triumphed when other NFL teams such as the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers bought his $15,000 product. "It was just as good as what the Cowboys had," he said.
Enjoying the Elder Statesman Role
By the time Morino Associates went public in the '80s, Witzel had pulled out of active management and was a passive investor. But his mentoring relationship and family friendship with Morino has remained constant.
Now a community visionary and the entrepreneur of the Potomac KnowledgeWay, Morino's enthusiastic, sometimes messianic presentations on behalf of the networked community stretch the imagination, and occasionally the attention span, of his audiences.
But Witzel claims still to be doing his part: "I'm a pretty good editor," confides Witzel, who has devoted exactly 4.5 feet of shelf space to Morino's various tomes of the last two-and-a-half years.
Witzel, whose initial $600 investment bought him a 50 percent stake in Morino Associates, recalls a younger Morino, now worth more than $100 million, sitting on a curb in Crystal City, Va., awestruck over having just sold a software program to Boole & Babbage for $250,000.
"He kept me young in many ways," admits Witzel, quickly quipping, "and in many ways he aged me."
Witzel won't reveal his net worth, but admits to doing well before Morino Associates and benefiting even more from the multiplier effect of his days on Wall Street.
Known to be closely allied with Morino in private investing, Witzel claims to spend his days working on his football bets, reading non-fiction and collecting quotes from original sources.
A father of two and grandfather of five, the man known to numerous infotech veterans as "Uncle Bill" especially likes Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonen's belief that "there are only two things you can give your children: roots and wings."
Another is Abraham Lincoln's suggestion that "You can't fertilize a field by farting through a picket fence."
PC-less and dedicated to remaining so, the irreverent Witzel says too many people are still selling boxes and not solutions. "That'll endear me to a hell of a lot of people," he quips, "and I really care."