Commentary: Dan Case: A Class Act in the Valley

At a time when business leaders inspire more scorn than esteem, he stands as a model of decency

By Linda Himelstein

I had a running joke with Daniel H. Case III that began the day we met. It was 1996, and I had just arrived in Silicon Valley from New York City to cover the financial-services industry. Naturally, one of my first calls was to Dan, then CEO of high-tech banking boutique Hambrecht & Quist in San Francisco.

We talked about the state of the industry: what was hot, what was not. Then he gave me what at the time seemed like a typical public-relations pitch. Dan thought I should write about how his investment bank had managed to succeed partly by doing the right thing: He insisted that, even in the take-no-prisoners business world, H&Q was, well, nice. We both had a good laugh. Then I realized he was serious.

I didn't take him up on the offer. Normally, niceness isn't much of a business story. Maybe I should have: There was a lot more to Dan Case than being a nice guy, although he truly was that. Case played an instrumental role in making Silicon Valley an industrial powerhouse. When Dan died at age 44 on June 26, after a 15-month battle with brain cancer, the world lost more than a good soul. It lost a man who serves as a reminder that Corporate America is populated by those who accomplish much good, not just by cheats and liars. At a time when business leaders inspire more scorn than esteem, Dan stands as a model of decency.

Throughout his career, Case was aggressive, to be sure. But he never crossed the line, say friends and competitors alike. When pitching a client, "Dan was a class act. One thing I always liked about him was that he competed on a positive basis. He talked about his strengths, not other people's weaknesses," says Sandy Robertson, former head and co-founder of rival Robertson Stephens & Co.

If a potential conflict of interest arose, Dan was quick to recuse himself, but he also tried hard to prevent those situations from coming up at all. For instance, he sat on the board of game-software maker Electronic Arts until he died, but he never did any of the company's banking business. H&Q didn't take America Online Inc. public even though Dan's brother, Stephen M. Case, was CEO.

His talents were obvious from the start. Dan joined H&Q as an intern in 1979 and rose through the ranks quickly. For two decades, he provided technology startups with the cash they needed to flourish. In the early days, when the Wall Street powers snubbed Valley startups, he took them public. Later, Dan became one of the key forces behind the Internet boom. True, many of those companies are now just a memory. But Dan's firm advised many of tech's darlings, from Siebel Systems Inc. (SEBL ) to Inc. (AMZN ) "His clients weren't served in the gold-rush manner but with sound advice and support for the long run," says L. John Doerr, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Since 1990, his small firm underwrote 101 tech initial public offerings, placing it fourth among all investment banks in volume and well ahead of such giants as Merrill Lynch & Co. (MER ), according to Dealogic LLC.

Case's willingness to take risks extended to his cancer fight. In May, 2001, he formed, with his brother Steve, now chairman of AOL Time Warner Inc. (AOL ), Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure Inc., a foundation that aims to help find a cure for this almost-always fatal disease. The organization has cobbled together a group of leading researchers, academics, and Silicon Valley power brokers. So far, ABC2, as it is known, has doled out 21 grants to medical researchers.

Dan established his foundation knowing that he would probably not live to see the fruits of his efforts. What's more, he allowed himself to become a test case, volunteering for experimental treatments and medications that might help cancer victims in the future. He paid a price, suffering painful side effects.

When I saw Dan for the last time in May, his baby face was bloated by the cancer drugs. He had lost some hair. But he was the same guy. He prodded me to get on with that "nice" story about his firm, now known as J.P. Morgan H&Q. And one last time, we had a good laugh.

Senior Correspondent Himelstein covers Silicon Valley.

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