Barksdale investing his time, money in technology

JACKSON — Jim Barksdale is a Mississippian.

It’s a label far more dear to him than the two that often precede his name — Internet pioneer and corporate superstar.

These days, Barksdale, 67, is chairman and president of Barksdale Management Corp., investing his time and money in bold, high-concept technology ventures.

His latest investment is Spread Networks, a Ridgeland-based company that spent two years building a cable route that sends trades between Chicago and New York at lightning fast speeds.

Retirement? Not on his radar.

“Why would you retire?” he asks. “Besides, I’m not very good at golf. Used to be.”

From the looks of his resume, Barksdale has a knack for building companies poised for far-reaching influence. When he entered the University of Mississippi in 1962, he vowed to change the world.

He declared English literature as his major but realized he “had to work” post-graduation. He changed his major to marketing, graduated in 3 1/2 years and went to work as a sales rep for IBM in Memphis, Tenn.

Barksdale chose Memphis because he wanted to forge his own path. He had the option of relocating to Little Rock, Ark., where older brother Jack also worked for IBM, or his hometown of Jackson, where his father, John Woodson Barksdale Jr., was a prominent bank executive.

He was determined not to ride his father’s or brother’s coattails.

Barksdale speaks highly of IBM, where he traveled the country selling massive computers to banks and insurance companies.

“That’s the right way to run a business. They set a great example of business ethics and professionalism,” he said. “If you do it right, that’s what it looked like … IBM.”

In 1979, Barksdale joined a young startup in Memphis called FedEx. He served as the company’s chief information officer and later executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Under Barksdale’s guidance, FedEx built the first computer system that could track packages. The company expanded to 129 countries. Employee numbers grew from 10 to 100,000.

Barksdale changed course in 1992, becoming chief operating officer of McCaw Cellular Communications, later AT&T Wireless. He oversaw a national network worth $11.5 billion when AT&T bought McCaw in 1994.

Barksdale served as CEO of AT&T Wireless before he shed his buttoned-down image in 1995 to head up Netscape, credited for sparking the global Internet boom.

“My job was to provide adult supervision for those under the age of 16,” Barksdale joked, referring to Netscape’s young staff. “Netscape made the Internet usable by mere mortals.”

Best known for its Web browser, Netscape was sold to AOL for $10.5 billion in 1999. Barksdale pocketed $700 million in that deal.

“If I have any skill, it’s how to apply systems to large-scale business problems,” he said.

“These were not only great companies, but each of them created an industry. That’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.”

Barksdale’s career caused him to live for a time out West, but he kept abreast of home-state happenings.

“Even when he was living in California, or out in Colorado and Seattle, he was very cognizant of the issues in Mississippi,” said brother Claiborne Barksdale.

A staunch education advocate, Barksdale and his late wife, Sally, gave Ole Miss $5.4 million to create the McDonnell-Barksdale Honors College.

“We wanted to keep our best and brightest in the state,” he said. “It’s an Ivy League education at a state tuition price, and it’s a heck of a bargain.”

Then in 2000, the Barksdales donated $100 million to the state to create the Barksdale Reading Institute, a partnership between the state Department of Education and public universities to improve literacy rates.

Barksdale has famously said if there is any money left when he dies, it will be because he miscalculated.

“I’d made more money than I was ever going to need. I wanted to do something specific, measurable and scaleable that would actually do something instead of giving it to charity,” he said.

“If you can improve reading scores, you can break the cycle of poverty. With globalization and the advent of technology, we have to compete with our wits as opposed to our brawn.”

Quantifiable data are Barksdale’s best friend. He and wife, Donna, continue to fund initiatives that produce continuous improvement in student learning. Most recently, the reading institute hired four veteran educators to work as principals in four struggling schools.

Claiborne Barksdale is CEO of the reading institute, based in Oxford. For him and his brother, education is the only way Mississippi will “get off the bottom.”

“Jimmy wants to get the biggest bang for his philanthropic dollar,” he said. “He has seen with his own eyes in the tech world that education is critical.”

Barksdale’s contributions have not gone unnoticed by peers, including Carol Berger, United Way of the Capital Area president and CEO.

“Jim and Donna not only invest money but are highly involved and passionate about the causes they support,” she said.

SkyTel founder John Palmer, who introduced Barksdale when he was inducted into the Mississippi Innovators Hall of Fame in 2009, agrees with Berger. He and Barksdale’s brother, Jack, were roommates at Ole Miss. He calls Jim “a typical Barksdale” — bright, disciplined and having a good sense of humor.

“He’s done more than anybody in the history of this state,” he said.

“It’s almost like having a second governor. And I say that with all respect to Gov. Barbour.”

Cassandra Mickens/The Clarion-Ledger