The ver­sa­tile D.C. in­vestor with a busy, buzzy foun­da­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - CAPITAL BUSINESS - Thomas.heath@wash­post.com

It’s that rare Wash­ing­ton busi­ness that has served as a spawn­ing ground for other com­pa­nies and en­trepreneurs. Amer­ica On­line, MCI Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and the Car­lyle Group quickly come to mind. You could prob­a­bly throw Liv­ingSo­cial in there as well.

Wash­ing­ton en­trepreneur Dan Price and his part­ner and brother, Tim, did their part two decades ago with their funky, fail­ing lit­tle baby called Send-A-Song, one of the early pi­o­neers in in­ter­ac­tive phone dial­ing. The orig­i­nal idea was to de­liver tunes like Ste­vie Won­der’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by tele­phone to a spe­cial some­one on Valen­tine’s Day, birth­days, anniversaries, etc.

In­stead of fold­ing Send-ASong’s tent af­ter get­ting gob­s­macked by record­ing in­dus­try law­suits, the broth­ers turned it into Price In­ter­ac­tive. The busi­ness re­volved around the ro­botic voice that an­swers the phone to in­struct you which num­ber to press to check your flight sta­tus, get a 401(k) bal­ance or to (god for­bid) can­cel your news­pa­per.

“Send-A-Song is the ‘trunk of an en­tre­pre­neur­ial tree’ that has cre­ated hun­dreds of jobs and hun­dreds of mil­lions of eco­nomic value in the D.C. area over the past 25 years,” Dan Price said. In ad­di­tion to Price In­ter­ac­tive, Send-A-Song’s off­spring in­clude Con­tact So­lu­tions, He­lios HR (a ma­jor lo­cal hu­man re­sources con­sult­ing firm founded by Kathy Al­barado, a for­mer se­nior player at Price) and Xtone, which holds patents on voice tech­nol­ogy.

Send-A-Song also spawned a small for­tune and al­lowed Dan — a grad­u­ate of Har­vard Busi­ness School and ac­com­plished ac­coun­tant — to pur­sue his com­mit­ment to in­vest­ing and, get this, bee­keep­ing.

The Price broth­ers sold Price In­ter­ac­tive in 2001 for more than $100 mil­lion, in­clud­ing $50 mil­lion in cash. I es­ti­mate that af­ter they split the pro­ceeds with fel­low in­vestors, the broth­ers each walked away with dou­ble-digit mil­lions.

Price used his for­tune to be­come a gentle­man farmer. He bought the 14-acre farm an hour west of Wash­ing­ton in Prince Wil­liam County for $1 mil­lion in 2002. He had spied it from a nearby golf course. Price knocked on the door and asked the owner if he was will­ing to sell. He owned a farm a few months later.

The honey from his bee­keep­ing helps fuel his Sweet Vir­ginia Foun­da­tion, a non­profit founded in 2008.

The foun­da­tion each year sells about 500 10-ounce jars of honey, pack­aged in sleek, cus­tom wood boxes.

Cus­tomers pay $100 a bot­tle for the liq­uid gold. Price said so far the foun­da­tion has sent around $100,000 to var­i­ous char­i­ties, in­clud­ing Camp Sun­shine in Maine. Chil­dren with life-threat­en­ing dis­eases and their fam­i­lies use the camp for re­cre­ation and sup­port.

“The idea was to make some good for the world come out of this very spe­cial farm,” the for­mer ac­coun­tant said.

The farm is a menagerie. Thou­sands of daz­zling, yel­low sun­flow­ers car­pet the grounds down to a 900-acre lake. A bird­house ho­tel buzzes with Pur­ple Martins from Brazil. The Pur­ples fly up from the Ama­zon so they can take ad­van­tage of the long North­ern Hemi­sphere day­light to feast on bugs.

“You come out one day in Au­gust, and they are gone. Just like that,” Price said.

As we sip wa­ter on his porch, a “con­fu­sion” (that is the right word) of eight gob­bling guinea fowl marches to­ward the woods. Price bought 40 of them as chicks for $3 each be­cause they eat bugs and ticks. But the foxes have gorged, turn­ing the con­fu­sion into a calm.

Price is a bee nut. He can go on about honey bees for­ever. He told me when I vis­ited last week that bees are the most stud­ied crea­tures on earth, se­cond only to hu­mans.

“I’m do­ing this bee thing,” the 59-year-old in­vestor said. “I did it as a quirky lark. Bees are kind of quirky.”

He guided me near — but not too near — one of his 26 hives hous­ing about a mil­lion Euro­pean honey bees.

Price picked out the queen through the glass. (She had a dab of paint on her to make “Her Bee­ness” easy to spot.)

I asked him if the am­ber goo that I drip on my fruit and wal­nuts ev­ery morning comes from bee guano. No, he said. It’s the juice from the flow­ers that the bees con­stantly visit ev­ery day. Then carry it back to the hive where they spit it up into the hon­ey­combs or what­ever they are.

Price emailed me bee fun facts. Do you know that honey bees visit 2 mil­lion flow­ers just to make a one pound jar of honey? The Euro­pean honey bees on his farm are tech­ni­cally named Apis mel­lif­era. They were brought here in the early 17th cen­tury by Euro­pean set­tlers for their honey and wax pro­duc­tion.

Part of Sweet Vir­ginia’s mis­sion is to spread the word on the im­por­tance of bees. It has taught more than 10,000 lo­cal el­e­men­tary school­child­ren about honey bees. A sub­sidiary of the non­profit, called Com­mu­nity Flow­ers, has dis­trib­uted more than 100,000 cut flow­ers to se­nior cit­i­zens. There is a dig­i­tal com­po­nent called Hive Alive! Dig­i­tal and a mo­bile class­room may be on the way.

Honey isn’t Price’s sole en­deavor. He still has his money sprin­kled in var­i­ous busi­nesses.

Com­mu­nity Flow­ers led to an ac­qui­si­tion he made last year called Bright­star Care. Bright­star is a high-end, pri­vately owned home health care com­pany that pro­vides nurses and nurs­ing as­sis­tants for the ill, el­derly and those who need a lit­tle help at home or get­ting to ap­point­ments. About half a dozen full-timers run the day-to-day operations from an of­fice in Ash­burn, as­sign­ing 75 staffers to clients.

Price bought a Vir­ginia fran­chise in 2016 for about $350,000, in­clud­ing work­ing cap­i­tal. He ex­pects it to earn around $2 mil­lion in rev­enue this year and dou­ble that by 2019, throw­ing off a 10 per­cent profit.

The Rockville na­tive gets his en­tre­pre­neur­ial bug from his grand­fa­ther, who sold whiskey from a still he had hid­den in the Great Smoky Moun­tains of North Carolina.

His great-grand­fa­ther was an Ital­ian im­mi­grant and road­builder who coined the fam­ily apho­rism that it’s “bet­ter to sell ap­ples on the cor­ner than work for The Man.”

Price’s fa­ther ran an ex­ca­vat­ing firm in Wash­ing­ton, where Price worked be­fore at­tend­ing the Univer­sity of Mary­land. He grad­u­ated summa cum laude in 1980 with an ac­count­ing de­gree.

The guy was am­bi­tious. Upon en­ter­ing Mary­land, he set his sights on Har­vard. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, he went to work in the Wash­ing­ton of­fice of Arthur An­der­sen, the ac­count­ing firm that later im­ploded fol­low­ing the En­ron scan­dal.

He made a name at Arthur An­der­sen with two big ac­com­plish­ments: He found that client Mar­riott had un­der­stated earn­ings by 1 cent per share. He also aced the Cer­ti­fied Pub­lic Ac­count­ing exam, scor­ing first in the state and among the best in the coun­try.

He is con­vinced that his CPA score and ex­ca­vat­ing back­ground were unique enough to un­lock the key to Har­vard.

Price turned to in­vest­ing af­ter Har­vard, mak­ing a profit on Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel when it was start­ing. He took a year off to travel when he was 30, in­clud­ing a pas­sage on a coconut freighter across Poly­ne­sia. His in­vest­ments other than Price In­ter­ac­tive in­cluded hits and misses. The hits in­clude Con­tact So­lu­tions, which de­liv­ered 10 times his in­vest­ment. He also had a nice win with Smart Cells, which treated di­a­betes pa­tients and was sold to Merck.

The losers in­clude a pizze­ria and a bio­med­i­cal com­pany. Price said the wins have far ex­ceeded his losses.

These days, the in­vestor/ bee­keeper soaks the view in early even­ings from the farm­house porch, quaffing his Sierra Ne­vada beer and watch­ing the Pur­ple Martins, guinea fowl, hun­gry foxes and, of course, his buzzing bees.

“Bees have be­come po­lit­i­cally cor­rect and cool,” he said. “When I started this, peo­ple said, ‘You are do­ing what?’ But there’s some­thing life-af­firm­ing and happy about those bees.”

And all spawned by Send-ASong.

SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

In­vestor Daniel Price also keeps bees on his farm in Nokesville, Va. The money he makes sell­ing honey fu­els his Sweet Vir­ginia Foun­da­tion, which has sent $100,000 to var­i­ous char­i­ties.

Value Added THOMAS HEATH

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