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Photograph by Michael Amsler

The Key of Life

Telecom Valley tycoon and philanthropist Don Green reflects on music, money, and manipulation

By Paula Harris

DON GREEN RARELY SMILES. Telecom Valley's founding father is a study in gray as he walks through his stunning gated-community home in the northern outskirts of Santa Rosa. Gray slacks and sweater, charcoal socks, and gray moccasins. His hair is pearl, and his eyes are steely blue behind silver-framed spectacles. Like the cool, clear gaze of a seasoned poker player, these eyes give away nothing.

"I'm not terribly outgoing and have been described as reserved, but I'm not," says Green, watching to see what kind of first impression he's made. "Because I don't smile and slap them on the back, people assume that I'm more reserved than I am."

Yet somehow, even with all the gray, the aloof demeanor, and the detached expression, the British-born Green, 68, still succeeds in exuding a certain charm. His handshake is firm, his humor dry, and his keen observation and interest in others genuine.

"The grandkids have no respect for the upholstery," Green mutters suddenly but with an unexpected flash of fondness as he stoops to retrieve a couple of oversized cushions from the floor and put them back on a sofa in the casual TV room.

Today, though, Green's four grown children, his five grandchildren, his wife, Maureen, and her four dogs are nowhere to be seen. All is quiet in this impressive hilltop mansion, except the babble of the small waterfall as it splashes into the koi pond in the inner courtyard, and the dreamy Celtic music piped throughout the house.

Many individuals have followed with keen interest Green's 40-year success story--he is credited with single-handedly creating the now burgeoning local telecom industry.

That industry, a nonentity in Sonoma County before 1985, has become a booming business that has attracted big-company buyouts, generated impressive revenues, helped fuel the local economy, and spawned a new generation of local millionaires.

"Right now Petaluma is the major seat of the telecom industry in the country, if not the world," Green-watcher and Sonoma investment executive Chris Irvin observes. "Don Green is like the grandfather of the entire industry."

Indeed, telecom executives around the county refer to themselves as Green's "children" because so many of them are his former employees and protégés who since have gone on to form their own telecom start-up companies. Many also have become rich making equipment and software that allows customers access to an array of services over their telephone lines, including high-speed Internet access.

GREEN, who founded Digital Telephone Systems, Optilink, and Advanced Fibre Communications, has retired three times. He now mentors new entrepreneurs and sometimes sits quietly on an easy chair by the window of his home.

It's the sunniest place in this entertainment den, which is filled not only with a large flat-screen television embedded in the wall, but also with shelves crammed with books on music and tightly packed rows of vinyl record albums--a testament to the entrepreneur's longtime passion for choral music.

He is eager to talk about the ambitious $42 million concert hall that is being constructed at Sonoma State University and of which he and his wife, an SSU alumna, are the chief benefactors.

In 1997, after Green's successful company Advanced Fibre Communications went public, the Greens donated $10 million of their personal fortune as seed money toward the planned 1,400-seat facility.

The Center for the Musical Arts is to be modeled after the Seiji Ozawa Hall in the Boston Symphony's summer home, Tanglewood, nestled in the rolling hills in western Massachusetts.

The SSU concert hall will be the chief venue for SSU music programs, summer festivals, and year-round arts events, and it will become the new home of the Santa Rosa Symphony, which will be leaving its longtime digs at the Luther Burbank Center.

The idea is to capitalize on the allure of arts and grapes. At one end of the versatile hall, large doors will open up to an outdoor seating area and a sloping lawn that can host an additional 10,000 patrons.

"I'm told the 7 percent slope of the grass will allow a wine glass to stand up without tipping over," comments Green.

His expression remains serious.

The Greens' reasons for supporting the new concert hall are threefold. The first reflects the couple's longtime involvement with choral music. Until recently, they sang with the SSU Bach Choir, and their vision is to bring top-quality music into the area.

"There's an opportunity to have a music festival in the summertime, and that would benefit all the people who live in Sonoma County," says Green.

The second reason for supporting the concert hall is not quite so altruistic: it's a blatant attempt to lure skilled high-tech workers into relocating here.

"As an employer of hard-to-get hardware and software engineers, having a music festival and a concert hall would improve the cultural environment and make Sonoma County an even more attractive place," Green says. "[Sonoma County] is geographically very attractive, and this concert hall, which will be a world-class facility, will attract the best performances available."

The third reason is Green's desire to leave behind a cultural legacy.

"There are few opportunities in life to do something that is lasting," he muses. "We take for granted what our forefathers have done building museums, libraries, and concert halls. And we have the opportunity here in Sonoma County to build something that our children and grandchildren can appreciate after we're long gone."

THE PROJECT NEEDS to raise another $16 million or so, but is still slated to open in two years. Meanwhile, the Greens have been actively campaigning to raise funding for the project by sponsoring and attending weekend receptions.

According to Jim Meyer, SSU's vice president of development, individuals from North Bay high-tech companies have contributed another $5 million, mostly because of Green's influence.

"Many people are willing to invest, primarily because of Don Green," says Meyer. "He hired them, brought them here, and helped them become successful."

It's a far cry from the dubious charitable example set by Microsoft magnate Bill Gates and Silicon Valley's young techno-elite, with its reputation for stinginess. A 1998 study showed that only 43 percent of families with more than $150,000 in annual income donated more than $2,000 a year to charity.

Green explains away this tight-fisted phenomenon as a result of insecurity about possessing new wealth. "Generally speaking, if you make money when you're young, you tend to think about spending it on yourself and you're worried it will melt away. When you're a bit older, you tend to take a different outlook on life and like to see something done that has lasting value," he says.

"I'd like to think I can be an example to those who've made a lot of money. Not to people who are having trouble making mortgage payments, but to the many multimillionaires that have been created in Sonoma County in the last five years."

Indeed, Green's philanthropy already is rubbing off on others who have reaped rewards from the local telecom boom that Green helped create. Last fall, two employees of the Petaluma optical fiber firm Cerent Corp., purchased recently by Cisco Systems, used their newfound millions to join two friends in saving the beleaguered Phoenix Theatre, the popular punk emporium that was slated for imminent office conversion. One of those guardian angels, Paul Elliot, a Cerent systems architect who worked for Green at Optilink, says his mentor's charitable efforts are a big influence. "Absolutely," Elliot says, "Don certainly provided a great example and one that was on my mind when I was looking at the Phoenix Theatre."

Meanwhile, Elliot and fellow Cerent workers are following Green's example in the business and education worlds--they will be giving seed money for a new hardware and software masters program at SSU with a focus on telecommunications and related engineering.

WHAT MANY PEOPLE don't know is that Green came from a working-class background and spent his childhood living with his "unskilled but honest" parents near the Liverpool docks--an extremely poor area.

He later worked as an apprentice technician at the British Post Office, which paid for him to go to school. After a four-year stint in Canada, Green moved to the United States in 1960, living in San Francisco and Tiburon before finally settling in Santa Rosa 13 years ago. "People assume that I don't come from a poor background," he says.

"There's a tendency to think I come from an affluent family, especially because I don't have a Liverpool accent."

At the time, Green was interested in amateur dramatics. A speech coach helped him erase any traces of regional dialect. "People might be surprised to learn that I once wanted to be onstage, that I wanted to be an actor," says Green. "But I concluded I didn't really like the profession because of the egos and the lifestyle, and I concluded I'd prefer to be an engineer."

Still, he adds, drama training helped reduce his shyness.

"It's strange you can be onstage and performing and still be a reserved person, but you put on another persona," Green recalls. "And that helped me later in life. I never have trouble talking to 50 people or 1,000 people."

Green has a reputation of being mistrustful of bureaucracy and admits that he likes to "think outside of the box."

"I believe a certain level of bureaucracy is necessary to keep order, but if you have too much bureaucracy it slows down the rate of change and becomes inefficient, so you have to have enough to communicate with people," he explains.

THE ART of communication has been a cornerstone of Green's business success, particularly when coupled with his image as a stereotypical stiff- upper-lipped Brit.

"I've never shown people where my ego is," he explains. "It's been an advantage because it allows you to be more in control of the situation; when you meet someone and it's obvious they have a huge ego, particularly about one aspect of their life, knowing that helps you deal with them, manage them, or manipulate them--or whatever you want to call it.

"You, in effect, control the situation to your advantage. I know it sounds a little Machiavellian, but it's very useful. The art of communication is helped if there's a degree of reservedness on one side."

Green is now on the board of directors of AFC, but is not involved in any of the day-to-day activities. He keeps busy playing tennis, walking, bird watching, and dabbling in new start-up companies, where he feels his extensive experience has more value.

But he's not entirely comfortable being cast in the role of saintly mentor.

"I do it for two reasons: because it's intellectually stimulating and because I can make a lot of money if these companies do very well," he explains. "It allows me to invest money in situations where I can influence and benefit."

Green says a lot of potential entrepreneurs send him business plans asking for advice, figuring he has the magic recipe, the golden touch. Sometimes, he says, he, too, stands back and sees himself as a kid from the Liverpool docks who made a huge amount of money and can afford houses in Hawaii, San Francisco, and the wine country, and he finds it somewhat amazing.

"It is like magic. You have to be lucky, but you also have to recognize luck when it's there," he observes. "I've had good success in business, and it's come along without any real sacrifice.

"I've taken risk, but the risks have always paid off."

GREEN SITS BACK in his easy chair, unblinking in the afternoon sunlight, and recalls one of the first times he was interviewed. It was for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers magazine, and he says it made a very favorable impression on certain of his relatives who weren't quite sure just what he did for a living.

"The IEEE cover said 'Don Green is a winner!' In hindsight, I see myself as a winner because I don't ever expect to lose, and that helps in doing lots of things," he explains. "I got involved in this music facility, and I assume it's going to be successful. I communicate that to people, and then other people pick up on that and it becomes successful. So it's not a bad aura to have about yourself."

And, with that, Don Green finally smiles.

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From the March 9-15, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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