Ex-Turner pilot took a lesson from Ted

A key to success, he says, is spotting a business that will soon take off

Back in the 1980s, when he was flying around the world as personal co-pilot for Ted Turner, J.B. “Jeff” Vick spent 20 days a month with the media mogul, 5 or 6 hours a day. Along the way, he picked up a few tips he uses today as a metro Atlanta entrepreneur.

There was, for example, the stopover in Nebraska when Vick asked his boss: “How do you get rich?”

“What do you call rich?” Turner snapped.

“Twenty-five million,” Vick replied.

“Well, twenty-five million ain’t rich,” Turner told him. “But if you want to make a lot of money, the best thing to do is find a business that’s going to be big in about three years. Get in, manage to stay at the table, and when the tide hits and it becomes big, sell.”

That, more or less, Vick says, “is what I’ve tried to do: look out three years, then work back.”

His latest attempt at putting Turner’s advice to work is with FanDrive Media, a mobile technology company in the sports industry, for which Vick has big hopes.

Vick, 51, is nowhere near Turner rich, and it’s only in recent years that he’s gone fully entrepreneurial. Before, he worked for other companies such as iXL while pursuing innovative ideas like permit.com, which allowed people to buy state-issued licenses over the Internet. Vick also was an early player in the remote processing of merchant credit cards and TV infomercials.

But now, after various professional detours — and, like most entrepreneurs, starting and discarding various business models — he feels FanDrive could be his breakthrough.

Vick calls his career non-traditional and adds, “Fortunately for me, stupidity is not a trialable offense, or I’d be locked away.”

Business partners and observers are kinder. They call him an ahead-of-the-curve innovator, particularly when it comes to technology and its consumer applications.

FanDrive seems to fit the mold. The company works with clients in professional and college sports such as teams and arenas, including the Atlanta Spirit, Staples Center in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden. It offers the mobile technology they use to gather marketing data about fans when they text to interactive arena message boards.

Old Turner hands Stan Kasten, who ran the Hawks, Braves and Thrashers, and Will Sanders, Turner’s former CFO and a veteran communications industry investor, are among his partners.

FanDrive is still small — Vick estimates sales this year at about $1 million — but he projects $5 million in 2010 and $25 million in 2011.

Running such a growing business would culminate a long and interesting journey from where he was in life when Turner hired him.

Then, Vick was in his mid-20s, just fired from a clerk job at a truck leasing agent, and looking for something to do. A college buddy who had become Turner’s chief pilot offered Vick a chance to fly with them.

Why not, thought Vick, who’d flown since he was in high school.

“I was just looking for something to do,” he says.

They were heady days.

“We were flying everywhere,” Vick recalls, for business meetings, to make speeches, to Turner’s ranches, to meet celebrities from Princess Diana to Nobel Peace Prize winners.

There were plenty of perks, too, including getting to sit in Turner’s seats at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.

“It was like being on vacation all the time. Unfortunately we didn’t make any money,” he says. “We were being paid peanuts.”

But Vick says he gained something better — the chance to observe a billionaire entrepreneur operate up close.

“You’ve got to have a vision,” Vick says of that informal education. “You’ve got to figure out where you want to go, and then get involved and play the game. And you’ve got to be willing to take some risks.”

Vick got some “book” learning, too. One of his jobs as co-pilot was to clean the plane after each flight. That meant collecting and disposing of the discarded paperwork that followed Turner everywhere. There were player contracts and trade proposals, Hollywood movie scripts, new cable channel plans and details of pending acquisitions. Vick read everything, further whetting his appetite for business ventures.

Working his contacts inside Turner Broadcasting System — and plying them with a bounty of Ted stories — Vick arranged for a post-flying gig in TV production.

“I had learned where the real business was going and I wanted to be part of it,” he says.

When the chief pilot left, Vick says he turned down Turner’s offer to replace him and told Turner of his intention to work for the stations.

Only the plan didn’t work. Turner thought him disloyal for wanting to change jobs and had him assigned to the mail room.

“It was,” Vick says, “humbling.”

Vick stuck with it, working his way out of the mailroom and into sales before leaving Atlanta for a TV production job. He soon returned, though, and took a position with a fast-rising local company, Creative Video. There, among other things, he produced infomercials.

Creative Video owner Jim Rocco, who now serves on the FanDrive board, hired Vick.

“We didn’t have a job for him, but we created a space for an innovative guy,” he recalls. “Jeff’s the type of guy who always had his finger on up-and-coming technology and trends, things that would change the ordinary guy’s life.”

When iXL bought Creative Video, Vick went along. There, he developed permit.com, one of the Internet’s first e-commerce businesses which, Rocco notes, was “cutting edge” at the time. Later, it was sold, netting iXL millions.

Vick cashed out his stock in iXL and, given a cushion of time and money, began scouting for entrepreneurial opportunities. Eventually, he met Will Sanders, the former Turner CFO, and they formed a holding company with Vick as the idea man and FanDrive as one of the businesses he conceived.

“I was impressed with his knowledge of mobile communications and with some of the ideas he wanted to pursue,” says Sanders. “We’ve found this area of mobile marketing inside sports arenas as very fertile ground.”

Vick’s says his goal for FanDrive and any business he starts is to “create value,” not follow “fad,” with the hope that it will still be around and successful a few years from now.

Or, as Turner might put it, get into a business that’s going to be big, stay at the table, and wait for the payoff.

Meet J.B. Vick

Position: President, FanDrive Media

Age: 51

Home: Atlanta

Education: University of Tennessee

Family: Married, two children