Techdom is renowned for its population of college dropouts who, thanks to innate genius, business acumen, or plain old gumption, actually manage to change the world. Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs -- none has a four-year degree. Alex D. Zoghlin goes these luminaries one better: A serial entrepreneur who started Orbitz Inc., Zoghlin never even finished high school.
Zoghlin was student president at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., in 1988, and four months from graduation, when he quit to sell a computer program he had written to manage records for law firms in nearby Chicago. Today he is founder and chief executive of G2 SwitchWorks Corp., a software outfit that is selling flight information at deep discounts to travel agencies. In between he served four years of active duty in the U.S. Navy, where he picked up his GED and specialized in encryption. He also co-developed the first Web server and browser as part of the Mosaic team; learned Mandarin Chinese and studied econometrics at the University of Illinois; raced in the 140.6-mile Ironman World Championship triathlon, finishing in 12 hours and 16 minutes; earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do; and founded and sold two other companies that, together with his stake in Orbitz, have made him wealthy enough that his wife and three daughters should never have to worry about money. He just turned 36.
Although he works from a cubicle on the 39th floor of Chicago's Sears Tower, Zoghlin seems like your typical Silicon Valley techie, with his ponytail and fleece top and jeans. There's more to it than looks: Zoghlin, who began fiddling with his dad's computer when he was a preschooler, still writes code in his spare time. But he says the last time he did any professional programming was probably 10 years ago when he was running Neoglyphics Media Corp., a Web-site design shop that counted General Motors (GM ), Nokia (NOK ), and Sears (SHLD ) among its clients.
What makes Zoghlin successful is that he is more than just a computer whiz. An omnivorous consumer of books and news, he has been able to spot markets where networked computers running just the right program can save customers money and time. Orbitz is case in point. Before Zoghlin was recruited to start the e-ticket vendor in 2000 as its first employee and chief technology officer, travelers shopped online by going to sites relying on mainframe computers. Zoghlin and his airline backers figured a networked arrangement would make it easier to sort among every flight option to rank them by price or time in an easy-to-navigate format. Zoghlin got it right. Cendant Corp. (CD ) bought Orbitz for $1.25 billion in 2004.
Today he's using the same model to wrest more business from Sabre, Galileo, and Worldspan, which have long dominated the airline reservations system. G2 SwitchWorks, the 60-employee company Zoghlin launched in 2004, has created software that lets travel agents search out and book reservations on the Net. Zoghlin demonstrates, punching into his laptop the kind of query an agent might get: Find the cheapest roundtrip from San Francisco to Chicago, returning two days later during the evening or the following morning. The conventional process would take a skilled agent eight or nine minutes running 16 different searches, he says. His program does it with one click in 30 seconds.
When Zoghlin left home at 18, he didn't talk to his parents for more than a year. Today they chuckle over his relationship with his own children. Middle daughter, Zoe, 3, is particularly headstrong. Says Zoghlin: "My dad is always telling me, 'She is you, and this is payback."' Looking at everything he has accomplished, that wouldn't be so bad, would it?
By Michael Arndt