Donald Dell's resume reads as though it were written for a novel: Washington tennis phenom, student at the elite Landon School, Yale and University of Virginia law school, friend of the Shrivers and Kennedys, political operative, world traveler, undefeated captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team (that's more tennis), and a revolutionary sports agent who represented legends such as Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith and Jimmy Connors. After his tennis years, Dell didn't burn out and loaf around country clubs. He used those skills to build a network, which in turn created business and social opportunities that have sustained his success over his 72 years. Dell's life underscores the importance of networking. Herewith is some advice from Dell and from his book, Never Make the First Offer, regarding the secrets of networking.
Dell uses Under Armour founder Kevin Plank as an example of someone who has "worked at every relationship. What Kevin has done, and what I think is the most basic aspect of achieving business success, is to create opportunities to get to know people OUT of the office."
Make their friends your
Dell met FedEx founder Fred Smith through a friend who had owned the Memphis Racquet Club in Tennessee, where FedEx has its headquarters. Dell played a doubles match with Smith and two others. They became friends, and Dell later represented FedEx in its $205 million naming-rights deal with the Washington Redskins.
Dell had two big mentors in his life: tennis great Jack Kramer and the late Sargent Shriver, the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1972. Shriver called Dell to ask him to coach Shriver's son Bobby in tennis.
Later, on a visit to the family compound, Dell, a lawyer at Hogan & Hartson at the time, asked Shriver whether he could take him up on a job offer that Dell had refused a few years earlier. "His exact words were 'Yes, sure.' I became his special assistant, and he became my mentor for life."
Give advice (carefully)
Dell once told a young executive at American Express that his company was a "sleeping giant" that "has gotten too old and too fat."
Years later, on a visit to the company's offices, chief executive Ken Chenault greeted Dell with: "The sleeping giant has awakened!" Chenault was the young executive.
Do your homework
After losing out on the chance to represent University of Virginia star Ralph Sampson, Dell learned an important lesson.
"I spent a year recruiting Sampson's coach, Terry Holland. My competitor spent the year recruiting the mother," Dell said. "Later, I found out to my chagrin that the mother, not Ralph, was the decision maker."
Do good work
Dell's company needed an urgent influx of money in 1996. He persuaded a member of the wealthy French Dreyfus family to write him a seven-figure check, which put ProServ back on a firm financial footing.
"I know that if I had a reputation for being greedy or less than honest, Robert (Dreyfus) wouldn't have written me that check."
Do good works
Dell founded the Legg Mason Tennis Classic and gave it to the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation. The tournament has raised $15 million for children over the years. In return, the tournament has generated handsome returns to Dell's company.