Montpelier Winter 2000
It's fitting that Steve and Dee Dee Collins Leeolou ('78) þew into Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport last September in the midst of Hurricane Floyd to make a $1 million gift presentation to JMU. After all, their lives have been a whirlwind ever since they graduated in 1978. Why should a hurricane and what Dee Dee describes as a "white-knuckle landing" stop them from making the university's largest-ever individual gift from alumni?
Stephen R. Leeolou and Mary "Dee Dee" Collins Leeolou have been in the center of a storm in the business world that has taken them to the highest highs and to the brink of the lowest lows. After five years as a successful television news reporter and anchor, Leeolou decided to toss his TV career and pursue a venture that was virtually unheard of in the early 1980s ‹ cellular telephones.
While his mother nearly cried to learn that the first Leeolou to attend college was leaving a prestigious career for what she thought was some sort of fat removal business (cellulite), Dee Dee and other family and friends were supportive. In fact, it was Dee Dee's brother, William L. Collins III, who in early 1983, called Steve at WVTD television station in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., to tell him that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would be accepting licensing applications for the Raleigh-Durham market. Steve agreed to head up an effort to put together a partnership of investors to fund the high-risk venture.
He managed to raise the $175,000 he was told would be necessary to prepare, file and defend the Raleigh-Durham application along with L. Richardson "Rich" Preyer Jr., the son of a well-respected federal judge whom Leeolou had met through his television contacts.
It was supposed to be a one-time investment opportunity, but when the two partners learned that the FCC was scheduled to accept all remaining licenses in the country in June of 1983, they determined that they could help organize other investor groups to apply for cellular licenses.
After a few days of discussions and soul-searching with Dee Dee, Leeolou decided to scale back his duties in the world of television journalism to plunge into the crosswinds of wireless communications.
"I was 28 years old and highly inexperienced in business," Leeolou says. "But if I knew then what I know now, I probably would have been scared off by the near impossibility of success."
It was a tumultuous time, and the duo had no idea of the roller coaster ride ahead, but they buckled their seat belts, literally.
To raise money, Leeolou and Preyer drove around the Carolinas and as far south as Alabama covering 30,000 miles in Preyer's '79 Subaru station wagon and calling on friends, family and contacts for investments ‹ often in $1,000 to $5,000 increments.
"Before we knew it we had raised $5 million," Leeolou says. "Looking back, that was an awesome accomplishment."
Some of those early investors are JMU graduates who were in Kappa Sigma fraternity with Leeolou. Nobody had much money only five years out of school, but they had one thing in common: faith in Leeolou's vision.
"I had $5,002.48 in my checkbook," says Van Snowdon ('77), who joined in business with Leeolou many years ago. "I wrote a check to Steve for $5,000."
Leeolou and Preyer joined forces with Haynes Griffin, Preyer's former schoolmate at Woodberry Forest and Princeton. Griffin had co-founded Major Oil Co., a Greensboro-based petroleum supplier, and had built it into a $20 million business. Leeolou and Preyer were glad to have an experienced businessman aboard. Together they set up about 20 partnerships that were vying for cellular licenses in about 40 markets.
Just when everything was looking promising for the trio, however, the rules changed. The FCC decided that the originally prescribed hearings to determine who was best qualified to receive a license would be too time-consuming, so they dumped the process in favor of random lotteries. Short, simple applications could now be put together for $5,000 or less, and thousands began flooding in for the markets these entrepreneurs were seeking. The $5 million Leeolou had helped raise appeared to have been all but lost.
"There were so many times that we just felt like we were chasing the moon," Leeolou says. "It was a gut-wrenching process, and there were times when we thought we might lose everything, including the money invested by all of our friends and family."
As a defensive move, the group merged all of their partnerships into one company. That way, if any of the groups won a license, everybody would get a piece of the pie. The result was Vanguard Cellular Systems Inc.
When the lottery results were in, Vanguard's partnerships were selected for licenses in seven markets, but there were legal challenges.
"Ryan, our first child, was born [in 1986] on the same day that petitions were filed against Vanguard's winning applications," Dee Dee says. "All I wanted to do was call friends and family, and Steve was on the phone to lawyers and newspapers."
Leeolou jokes, "She was saying, `It's a boy!' and I was saying, `That's nice honey, but can you keep it down a little?'"
With the cellular game heating up, Leeolou finally quit his job as a TV anchorman, and Griffin and Preyer eliminated other commitments as well.
Vanguard overcame the legal challenges and completed its initial public stock offering in March 1988, raising $54 million. A second public stock sale added $67 million in additional equity.
Leeolou helped direct the company through a series of acquisitions, using its publicly traded stock as currency.
The company, which Leeolou co-founded and of which he ultimately became president and chief executive officer, managed to stay independent longer than any other major operator by concentrating on midsize and rural markets. Vanguard became the nation's third-largest independent cellular operator, covering a population of six million people within its 21 federally licensed markets.
After 15 years in business, however, the three founders opted to sell to AT&T because of what was becoming a fiercely competitive climate in the wireless industry. They sold Vanguard's Florida and Myrtle Beach interests to private purchasers, and the rest of the company merged with AT&T in a stock and cash deal that was completed last spring. The company's final take: $2 billion.
Back in 1974, however, Steve Leeolou arrived on the Madison College campus with nothing but a steamer trunk after an 18-hour bus ride from his New York hometown.
Leeolou majored in communications and focused on journalism. One of his first print "gigs" was for The Breeze. He also did on-air work at the original WMRA radio station, and later helped sign on the school's first 50-watt station, perhaps foreshadowing his future dealings with the FCC. He had a good time with his buddies in Kappa Sigma fraternity and as one of the first TV-3 interns, along with his still-good friend, Steve Buckhantz ('77). Today Buckhantz is the play-by-play announcer for the NBA Washington Wizards.
Steve and Dee Dee Collins met in the student center during their junior year, but it was a Zeta Tau Alpha [her sorority] party at his Kappa Sigma fraternity house that led Steve to finally ask her out.
"Actually, she stalked me," Leeolou jokes.
They dated steadily for the next two years. Leeolou graduated with the first class of the renamed James Madison University in 1978 with a B.S. in communications arts, and Dee Dee graduated magna cum laude the same year with a B.B.A. in accounting.
After graduation, Steve stayed with Channel 3 in Harrisonburg, while Dee Dee became a management auditor for the General Accounting Office in Washington, D.C. Steve then landed an anchor position in Chattanooga, Tenn. (where he grossed a whopping $11,800 per year), and the couple continued a long-distance relationship for 11 months. In September of 1980, Leeolou landed a position as anchor in Raleigh-Durham, and, in June 1981, they got married, and Dee Dee followed him to North Carolina.
While Steve was out chasing down investors for what would become Vanguard Cellular, Dee Dee continued on her own career path working for the Southeast Consortium for International Development in Chapel Hill and traveling to third-world countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Trinidad. She continued working until their second child, Brittney, was born in 1988.
"There were so many times that we almost hit rock bottom," Dee Dee says of those shaky early days of Steve's involvement in cellular. "But I had a good job, and we lived in an apartment and didn't have any children yet. And I knew he'd always do something [to make things right]."
With the company sold, now would seem to be the natural time for the Leeolous to retire and enjoy their hard-earned fortune. But that's not the case. Steve was one of the early investors in, and is now the chief executive officer of, another nascent business that was born about four years ago ‹ based on a patented electronic commerce technology.
InterAct Electronic Marketing Inc. provides the only seamless in-store and Internet-based system for offering personalized electronic discounts to consumers in grocery stores, pharmacies and other retailers.
"When you walk into a Food Lion, for example, and touch a computer
screen to select the coupons you want, that's us," Leeolou said.
"And starting in January, you can select savings on products you
want via the Internet at
The original technology founders of InterAct came to Vanguard Cellular looking for investors and Leeolou and others became involved when the company was nothing more than a concept.
"There are plenty of other companies that try to emulate what we're doing," says Van Snowdon, Leeolou's friend of 20 years and now senior vice president of business development for InterAct.
Leeolou predicts that InterAct will either be bought out in the near future, or the owners will hunker down and go public, leading to another seven- or eight-year-run. But before he's 50, Leeolou expects to be finished with that venture and ready to rest a bit.
"After this, I'd like to invest in some promising business ventures with the next young mavericks to come along," Leeolou says. "I say I might want to slow down and smell the roses, but I'll never be able to do that. I relax for a day or two, but then I get antsy."
The Leeolous had three children within five years, and now Ryan, 13, Brittney, 11, and Collin, 8, are involved in a variety of after-school sports that require lots of driving to practice and games. When not working, Dee Dee has been involved in time-consuming volunteer work including helping to get the financial reporting in order for Project Uplift (a Head-Start kind of program) in Greensboro, and serving as treasurer of the St. Pius X Catholic School Board, where, Steve boasts, "she almost single-handedly helped the school become solvent again."
When not racing to business or volunteer commitments and athletic fields, the Leeolou family enjoys outdoor sports and getting away to their condo in Myrtle Beach.
"We moved five times this summer," Dee Dee says. "We put our house on the market and it sold in two weeks. We only had three weeks to move out so we moved into our place in Myrtle Beach, then a corporate apartment in Greensboro, then back to the beach house, and now we are in a corporate apartment in Charlotte until the interim house we'll be living in there is finished. All with a 100-pound German Shepherd and three kids. Our life has never been tranquil."
When their new home is complete in about a year and a half and InterAct is well established, will things be peaceful then?
"The problem with tranquillity," Leeolou says, "is that ultimately Dee Dee and I would find too much of it to be boring."
Story by Sande Snead Fulk ('83)
Photos by Bob Leveron ('79)