Steven B. Dodge '63 is an entrepreneur, an environmentalist, and a philanthropist. As the founder of four companies over a period of 40 years, he has enjoyed success in cable television, radio, communications towers, and real estate development.
Dodge followed his adopted family to Hotchkiss. "I grew up in the New Haven/Hamden area. My father died when I was eight or nine, and my mother then married Donald Bradley, Class of 1925, who subsequently sent three of his sons to Hotchkiss. My oldest brother, Lowell Dodge '58, was the next to go, and I was last up," Steve said. "I don't remember being asked if I wanted to go to Hotchkiss, and I felt like I was sent there, more or less. Lowell was a hardworking student, had big grades, and won the Teagle Prize. His was a hard act to follow. I was less inclined than Lowell to work hard, at least then; I still thought I might redeem my standing with my worried mother if I won the Teagle, too. So, I went for it, but came in second. I can't remember which classmate edged me out by a point!
"The Hotchkiss I knew was strict, competitive, and judgmental. And it was socially limiting. An occasional letter from a girlfriend, slid into my box by Mr. Dufour, was as good as it got. And I was a committed rule breaker, nicknamed 'The Sniper,' or just 'Snipe,' and did more than enough to deserve the boot. I somehow escaped being caught outright, or maybe it was just the administration being kind. I do remember a handful of excellent teachers and coaches, including Peter Beaumont, who made learning French fun, and David Coughlin, who was a good coach and a good guy. And I loved my time with the Hotchkiss Drama Association, where no one seemed to mind how much of the School's money I spent designing and building elaborate stage sets. Importantly, the School did serve its purpose by getting me into Yale, which despite my lackluster grades, became a lifelong door opener. People just assume you're smart if you went to Yale, even if in truth I squandered the opportunity. I still have nightmares about being behind on coursework..."
At Yale, Dodge received his B.A. in English before serving in the Navy, where he achieved the rank of Lieutenant. "I did more real learning and growing up in the Navy than anywhere else – before or since. Actions produced tangible outcomes that mattered, and working hard became a habit. Still, my personal development really started at Hotchkiss, and continued at Yale, where a key part of my education was learning from what I didn't do well."
In 1978, Dodge landed his first conventional job at Bank Boston, where he was pulled out of the training program to evaluate a new industry called cable television. "I fell in love with it," said Dodge, who went on to build an industry-leading portfolio of cable TV loans. "For sure, commercial lending had educational value, but I wasn't cut out to work for other people for very long. My exposure to cable company CEOs/owners as a banker convinced me that they were just normal guys, not that formidable. So, I left the Bank to start my own cable company, American Cablesystems. As I look back on it, it's clear I caught an early break by getting exposure to a young and promising industry. I'm damn grateful to my first boss for picking me out of a pile of trainees, which included MBAs from places like Harvard and Stanford, to lead the bank's cable initiative. I loved competing with the business school guys, was told they were the best of the best, but I didn't necessarily see it."
Under Dodge's leadership, American Cablesystems grew rapidly over the next decade, and in time became the industry leader in revenue per subscriber. In 1988 the company was sold to Continental Cable for $450 million. Dodge offered, "I felt the industry was reaching a peak. Plus, I was a bit bored and ready for a fresh challenge."
He next took on radio, establishing a new company called American Radio Systems ("ARS"). "I was drawn to radio because to win in that industry you have to do a lot of things well. From my perspective at the time, radio was much more management-intensive than cable, where we were basically distributers of video product created by others. In radio, we did our own research, found and hired the talent, created our own product, and had to figure out how to effectively market it – a whole different ballgame. And for the first several years we got our butts kicked. The radio business has never been kind to rookies, and it's hard for me to recount all the mistakes we made in the beginning. But we dug in, found and attracted the right talent, and in time we got it all going on." At its peak, ARS operated more than 100 radio stations and became the revenue and ratings share leader in 19 out of 20 of its markets. In 1998 ARS was merged into CBS for a valuation of $2.6 billion.
At the same time, ARS spun off its subsidiary, American Tower Corporation, to the ARS shareholders. "Within ARS, we had some towers, and wireless companies had started knocking on our door looking for space on them. It seemed obvious to me that wireless was coming, so we started building new towers to see what kind of business they might attract. These early towers filled up almost overnight and quickly became highly profitable. We knew we were onto something, decided to spin off radio, and to focus squarely on the nascent tower industry." Based in Boston, American Tower became the leading independent owner and operator of broadcast and wireless communications towers in the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil. "The tower business model was then, and remains today, rock solid. But after 25 years of building three public companies, I'd had enough, needed a break, and handed the keys to a great young executive who is still very capably running the company."
In 2003 and with time to kill, Dodge decided to get into real estate development, forming Windover Development LLC ("Windover"). "While building the earlier companies, I also had a bit of a sideline building houses, driven by a passion for finding great sites, designing and building sound homes, barns with antique frames, ponds, weathered stone walls, and remote cabins. In all, I was trying to create special places. One neighbor offered this cutting assessment: 'This is how God would have made it if he hadn't run out of money.' Unlike corporate madness, I realized landscape design and development work would allow me to embrace something I really enjoyed while being able to get home at night and be with family. I decided to turn my passion for building into a business."
Dodge suggested that development was, at first, a casual undertaking, but has since morphed into something more than that. Windover's portfolio includes building high-end, single-family homes on Boston's North Shore, designing and building small villages wrapped around landscaped greens in Manchester, MA, and more recently, building large apartment complexes clustered around the train station in Beverly, MA. "Beverly has now become our main area of focus, as we are replacing the City's dying or dead industrial core with a new community of apartments, restaurants, and related amenities, with bustling Beverly Depot at its center. The idea is to create attractive housing and a vibrant new community while offering convenient train access to Boston and elsewhere. Importantly, we can underprice Boston by 40 percent, perhaps more, and still be viable. We're about halfway through the development of over 500 housing units, and it's been going well. It is very satisfying work." To stay out of trouble in the winter months, Dodge also established Windover Development of Florida, based in Bonita Springs, serving the Gulf Coast from Naples to Ft. Myers. "Oceanfront development in Florida has been a different sort of undertaking and a ton of fun, even if we are building showy houses for wealthy people who don't really need them. It is just something fresh, new, and different."
Along the way, Dodge and his wife, Anne, have become very involved in targeted philanthropy. "We can't take it to heaven, so we've had to learn how to give it away. We particularly like environmental causes, land conservation, and supporting minority education. We also became deeply involved in two arts-related institutions that are now core elements in the development of Beverly's thriving arts district: Montserrat College of Art and the Cabot Performing Arts Center. We invested in each, encouraged others to do so, and focused on attracting new leadership at the Board and executive level. Philanthropy isn't always rewarding, but these two arts initiatives have been a lot of fun, and they matter." Dodge has also supported Hotchkiss, establishing the Steven B. Dodge '63 Scholarship, which provides aid to three minority students each year.
What makes a successful entrepreneur? Dodge believes that often entrepreneurs are "idea people" who are not necessarily good at day-to-day execution. "By nature, most founder/entrepreneurs are not good managers. They may have vision, enthusiasm, and can get companies going, but they need a strong supporting cast that can pull it all together. You need to understand who you are and who you're not, and surround yourself with good people to fill the gaps. And you should include them in ownership and give them the space they need to do their thing, which may eventually mean getting out of the way altogether." Asked what other advice he might offer young entrepreneurs, Dodge said, "Remain humble, approachable. Pay attention to what's going on around you. Learn how to listen more than you talk."
To learn more about Windover Development: http://www.windoverdevelopment.com/
To learn more about Beverly Crossing: http://beverlycrossing.com/