After you’ve read Dennis Hamilton’s uniquely illustrated biography of the 77-year-old Louisiana-born Texan, “Beyond Tallulah’: How Sam Wyly Became America’s Boldest Big-Time Entrepreneur” (Melcher Media, New York, 336 pages, $29.95) you’ll know much more about this American success story.
I discovered “Beyond Tallulah” at my local library and quickly became engrossed in the story of a man — a fellow Libra (born Oct. 4, 1934) — who’s a contender for the most versatile big-company entrepreneur in American history. Designed to be read and enjoyed by people who can’t stand traditional business biographies “Beyond Tallulah” tells one of the most compelling untold business stories of our time.
The book was published in late October and bears the inscription: “In Memory of Charles J. Wyly Jr.” Charles Wyly Jr. was his year-older brother and close collaborator in most of his ventures and died in an August 2011 auto accident in Colorado, where — like Sam Wyly — he had a home.
Wyly has built 10 companies in nine different industries with 500 million- or billion-dollar valuations. He’s the reason that Bonanza Steakhouse, Michaels Arts & Crafts and Green Mountain Energy are household names today.
After working for IBM in the dawn of the computer age in Texas, Wyly founded a data transmission company (DATRAN) with the dream of building a network of microwave towers that would enable computers to talk to each other wirelessly — 20 years before the World Wide Web existed. The dream was thwarted by the monopoly of AT&T, later broken up by the federal government. As Wyly struggled to recover from setbacks like DATRAN, he never stopped asking, “What’s next?”
With exclusive access to Wyly and original interviews of more than one hundred of his colleagues and family members, this is definitely an authorized biography, so a reader should take that into account. Many times, the book seemed to me to be over the top in praise of Wyly, but that’s the danger with an authorized biography.
In “Beyond Tallulah” — the title refers to the arch rival Tallulah, LA of Wyly’s Delhi, LA high school football team, where he was a 5-7, 155 pound lineman — Hamilton tells how Wyly’s often bumpy career arc encompassed the dawn of the computer age and the rise of conglomerates, from the takeover wars of the 1980s to adventures in big-scale national retailing, from the Alaska pipeline to a new generation of clean energy. The ups and downs of Wyly’s life could serve as a blueprint for aspiring entrepreneurs. Or a cautionary tale. Or both.
Sam Wyly’s father, who was the editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper in Delhi, was a graduate ofLouisiana State University (LSU), but Bubba Wyly attended and graduated from lesser known LouisianaTech in Ruston, LA, east of Delhi on Highway 80 in piney woods north Louisiana. In 1957 he received his MBA from the University of Michigan’s Business School, which he attended on a scholarship, and began his career as a salesman for IBM and then for Honeywell.
Six years later, at the age of 28, Wyly was out on his own, creating his first company, University Computing Co. in Dallas, which offered computer services to local businesses. Over the course of the next 50 years, he founded or grew successful companies in computing, computer software products, oil refining, insurance, steakhouse franchising, arts-and-crafts retailing, hedge fund investing, environmentally friendly electricity, and carbon offsets.
In addition to being an entrepreneur, Wyly invests his time in educational institutions and has served as a trustee of Southern Methodist University, as vice chairman of the Princeton Parents Association, and on the board of PBS.
One of Wyly’s proudest endeavors was providing the start-up capital for the Dallas PBS station to create a high-quality news program in 1968. The station manager was a 28-year old Boston transplant named Bob Wilson, the father of actors Owen and Luke Wilson. The show was called Newsroom, which evolved into what’s known today as NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, one of the most trusted news sources for millions nationwide. Lehrer says in the book that without Wyly there would never have been a NewsHour on PBS. That aspect of Wyly — his desire to have a quality news program — impressed me as much as his purchase of the small Texas chain of arts and crafts stores called Michaels Arts & Crafts, now the nation’s largest. I was also intrigued by his purchase of a failing bookstore in Aspen, Colorado because of his life-long interest in reading and his social liberalism combined with fiscal conservatism. Sam Wyly doesn’t have the anti-intellectualism that seems to be the hallmark of the current crop of GOP presidential contenders — Ron Paul and the two Mormons excepted.
Forbes named Wyly one of its 10 greenest billionaires in 2010. In 2003, Wyly received the Murphy Award for Lifetime Achievement in Entrepreneurship from the University of North Texas Murphy Enterprise Center; in 1997, the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship and the David D. Alger Award from the University of Michigan Business School; and in 1970, the Horatio Alger Award and Entrepreneur of the Year honor from Southern Methodist University.
Wyly lives with his wife, Cheryl, in Dallas and in Aspen, Colorado. They own the previously mentioned independent bookstore, Explore Booksellers, where he asked the store’s employee what they wanted most. When they told him they wanted a cat, he supplied one named Kashmir from the local animal shelter he and his wife had funded. As a cat fancier, that really impressed me!
About the Author
Indianapolis resident Dennis Hamilton, formerly vice president and editor-in-chief for ICP Publications, has been writing about business leaders and technology since 1975. He first wrote about Sam Wyly in 1976 and has covered many of his entrepreneurial adventures since. Hamilton is the author of six books, more than a thousand articles in 30 journals, and his work has been published in seven languages.