Dotcom millionaire shares the wealth

Anthony Parks hit the jackpot with his Webvan stock options -- then decided to share his good fortune with the people who helped him on the way up.

What sorts of people hit the jackpot in Silicon Valley, and how do they spend the rest of their lives?

Until last autumn, Rick Warner thought he knew. As a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Inc., he hears plenty about recent Stanford and Berkeley graduates making fortunes on stock options and spending them fast on Porsches, private planes or Gatsby-like mansions.

Then he met Anthony Parks.

Parks had several million dollars in Internet-company stock, all right, but the story he told of his path to success was grittier and tougher than the financial adviser expected when they chatted on a chilly September morning at a cafe just north of San Francisco. One of the few black executives to make it big in the dotcom gold rush, Parks, 41, was raised in a tattered section of Oakland, Calif., and first worked at a McDonald's restaurant, sweeping up customers' litter. For three decades he had pursued a better life, armed with only a high-school education and a willingness to work longer and harder than anyone else.

To Warner's surprise, his new client didn't seem to have any big, hedonistic plans for what to do next. Then the man from Morgan Stanley asked what is usually a routine question: "Do you plan on making gifts of any of your shares to other people?"

"You have no idea how I feel after I give away stock. I feel great!" |Anthony Parks, WebvanParks looked startled. "It was as if I had suddenly peeked inside him and seen a secret," Warner later recalled. In a low, deliberate voice, Parks replied: "Yes, I do."

A week later, a letter from Parks arrived at Morgan Stanley's San Rafael, Calif., office, naming six people to whom he wanted to give some of his valuable Internet stock in Webvan Group Inc. (wbvn). A few days later, a longer list arrived. And then a three-page list, with more than 60 names. Some were due to get 100 shares apiece; a few as many as 5,000 each. "I had never seen a list like that," Warner later recalled. "It just went on and on."

That list turns out to be a road map to Anthony Parks's life. There are childhood friends and a half-dozen single parents, whose struggles remind Parks of the challenges his own mother faced. There are co-workers from long-ago jobs, including a cluster of chefs, dishwashers and restaurateurs. Each of them, Parks says, made a difference in his life as he tried to work his way up.

Right now, pieces of Parks's fortune are being transferred to everyone on that list. Recipients get stock in Webvan, an Internet grocery company that gave Parks more than 250,000 shares for his role in helping build the business. (He was the company's fifth hire.) As Morgan Stanley employees tend to the paperwork, they sense they are part of something extraordinary.

It isn't the act of charity that's so rare. Other Internet tycoons have begun donating large sums to what they believe are worthy causes. Instead, it is the intimate, hands-on nature of Parks's giving that people find astonishing. In a way, it's a throwback to a preindustrial world of two centuries ago, when there were no United Way campaigns, no private foundations with program officers, no mass mailings seeking tax-deductible contributions to organizations with postal box addresses. There were only people in trouble -- and a handful of people prosperous enough to go door to door, sharing a little of their success.

In his happiest moments, Parks talks about his dreams that such giving can become contagious. Silicon Valley could do much more to help those in need, he says, and he hopes his example will inspire others. Even among his recipients, some have said that they will share the windfalls with people who are worse off. "You have no idea how I feel after I give away stock," Parks exults. "I feel great!"

In all, Parks says, he is giving away about 30% of his Webvan stock, or roughly $1 million at its current price of about $13 per share. "I'm not being reckless," he says. "I know how much I need to live comfortably, and I'm not compromising that." He quit his Webvan job last year and now works as customer-service manager for BigBow.com Inc.(www.bigbow.com), an online gift-shopping site that hopes to go public, too.

At times, Parks worries that many problems can't be solved by his gifts alone. He wants to give stock to his younger brother, who has been battling drug addiction, but he fears that the proceeds would be badly misused. As Webvan's stock stumbles through a difficult spell, Parks frets that the value of his gifts mightn't be as much as he hoped. And a few people turned down his gifts outright, including one who told him: "The stock market makes people crazy."

Anthony Parks's story starts in the hardscrabble Havenscourt neighborhood of Oakland. Pregnant at age 15, his mother, Jacqueline Worley-Kemp was forced to leave high school and didn't get her equivalency degree until many years later. When her husband left her in 1968, she had to raise two boys on her own. Her solution: set up a beauty salon and work longer hours than anyone else, accommodating customers who wanted their hair done before work or after dinner.

Some evenings, her school-age sons didn't see her until 11 p.m. But Parks recalls, "I knew I'd better have my homework finished and on the kitchen table for her to check when she got home." Dissatisfied with Oakland's public schools, Worley-Kemp scraped together $80 a month to send her sons to St. Cyril's, a local Catholic school that attracted many working-class black families seeking a brighter future for their children.

Sister Marcella McMackin, the school's principal, remembers Anthony Parks as a polite, upbeat student with a relentless work ethic. Tall for his age, he applied for a part-time job at McDonald's when he was 14 years old and fibbed his way past questions meant to establish that he was at least 15. While other students headed for college, Parks grabbed any job he could. He parked cars, worked as a hotel bellhop and sold outdoor signs from the back of a truck. By age 19, he was earning $20,000 a year.

His next move was a disaster. In 1980, at age 21, he opened a hair salon and thought an outside accountant would take care of all the taxes. Not so. The salon went bust, and Parks discovered he owed state and federal authorities about $55,000 in sales and payroll taxes. He didn't have the money. Meanwhile, he had just become a father, with an out-of-wedlock daughter.

For the next 10 years, Parks scrambled to stay ahead of his bills. "He was one of the most driven people I've ever met," recalls Gene Barnes, a traveling salesman who met Parks in a nightclub nearly 20 years ago and has been a close friend ever since. "His primary goal in life was to be a successful businessman. Relationships and friendships were secondary. He wanted to get there at all costs. If people didn't understand what he was doing, too bad."

In 1986, Parks was working in the restaurant of a Sheraton hotel in San Francisco when he caught the eye of Steve Wiezbowski, who ran several big restaurants on San Francisco's pier. "Anthony was a fabulous waiter," Wiezbowski recalls. "He was charming, engaging -- all the skills you want to see." Wiezbowski asked Parks to become an assistant manager of Neptune's Palace, his premier restaurant. Within six months, Parks was promoted to manager.

In that job, Parks supervised more than 100 people. Suddenly he had clout -- and the chance to be a father figure of sorts. When one of his dishwashers, Victor Loggins, got arrested for small-time drug dealing, Parks could have fired him on the spot. He didn't. Instead, Parks vouched for his employee in court, and told him that if he never made such a mistake again, he could keep his job. As they finished a heart-to-heart talk, both men recall, Parks tapped the dishwasher on the shoulder and whispered: "Don't let me down."

Meanwhile, Parks's boss, Wiezbowski, coached the new manager on how to run a business. Master Excel spreadsheets, he said. Learn to make a budget and stick to it. If you don't know the jargon, buy textbooks and take them home. "He was tough on me," Parks recalled. "He pushed me hard. But he was the best mentor I ever had."

Parks stayed at Neptune's Palace for seven years, leaving in 1993 when Starbucks Coffee Co. of Seattle asked him to help expand its tiny San Francisco operations.

Starting with three cafes, Parks helped open 20 more sites over the next three years. His new job paid just $48,000 a year, less than he had been making in the restaurant business. But at Starbucks, for the first time in his life, he got stock options. Those kicked in as much as $50,000 a year -- doubling his pay and opening his eyes to a whole new kind of prosperity.

With his winnings, Parks bought a three-bedroom ranch house amid the canyons of Marin County, north of San Francisco. Finally he had his own place, after years of sharing small rented apartments with friends. "I said: 'This is nice! This is good!' " Parks recalls.

In October 1996, a recruiter called with a tantalizing offer: joining an Internet retailing start-up. The new company didn't yet have a name or a clear plan for reaching customers. (One early idea was to set up juice bars with computer terminals inside.) But the company's founder was Louis Borders, the man behind Borders Books. Parks agreed to an initial meeting -- and was spellbound.

"We were going to change the way that people shopped," Parks recalls. The new company would let people order almost anything, from groceries to television sets, over the Internet, and then get items delivered to their homes within a day, maybe less. Parks joined as the company's first head of customer service for $75,000 a year, plus options on what eventually became more than 500,000 Webvan shares.

The next 2 1/2 years at Webvan were chaotic, but never so grim as to shake Parks's belief that he was part of something important. When the juice-bar idea was scrapped, Parks helped organize the company's delivery side instead. He hired drivers and helped designed plastic totes to hold customers' merchandise.

In late 1998, though, Parks teetered close to personal insolvency. On his Webvan salary alone, he couldn't pay his mortgage, his living expenses, his daughter's college tuition and lingering obligations to the IRS. He hoped his Webvan stock someday would be valuable. But the company hadn't yet gone public, and he didn't have any way to cash out. So in the weeks before Christmas, Parks secretly took a second job -- as a night-shift bartender at a hotel near his job.

"I would work at Webvan from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then get in my car and drive to the bar," he recalls. "I'd work there till 2 a.m., get a few hours sleep and do it again. It was awful. There were times I had to pull off the road at night and rest my eyes because I couldn't go on anymore. But the bartending tips were excellent. And by January, I had enough money that I didn't need to do it any more."

The two-job stint took its toll on Parks. As Webvan grew, new executives with M.B.A.s wanted to redo much of his work. Meanwhile, it was harder to catch the ear of Borders, the company's founder. Unhappy with what he calls office politics, Parks decided to leave Webvan at the end of April 1999. Company officials won't comment about the reasons for his departure, except to say that he was a "dedicated" and "motivated" employee.

Unwilling to stay idle, Parks soon joined BigBow. As Webvan prepared to go public last autumn, Parks realized that his stock in the company was likely to be worth millions. A friend pointed him to Morgan Stanley's Warner for advice on what to do next. Within hours, Parks was in his den, alone in the evening, getting started on his list.

"All these names came to mind," Parks recalls. "I started thinking about people I hadn't talked with for a long time."

In a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Novato, Calif., Gene Barnes Jr. gets ready for another day of pitching hair-care products. He is a chatty 48-year-old, but there is a sad undertone that, friends say, wasn't there a decade ago. His wife died of cancer in 1993. Since then, Barnes has been raising his son, 16-year-old Gene III, alone.

Barnes says he and Parks used to enjoy "a lot of wild nights in San Francisco." The two men remain friends, but these days they talk mostly about how to be good parents. Both are enormously proud of the younger Gene, who has a 4.0 grade-point average (of a possible 5.0.) at the elite Branson School in Ross, Calif. The teenager also is a gifted basketball player who was invited last summer to San Diego for a "top 100" camp for high-school players from all over the U.S.

On his list, Parks earmarked 2,000 Webvan shares for Gene Jr., and another 500 for Gene III. "It could help pay for college," he explains. The older Barnes says he is grateful. But in a long evening conversation, he makes clear that he wants to think of Parks as a peer and a trusted friend, not as a modern-day Santa Claus. "We both said to each other, years ago: 'If I ever get over the hump, I'll make sure I give something back,'" the older Barnes says. "Now Anthony's made it, and I'm glad to see he's delivering on that promise."

At Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, restaurateur Steve Wiezbowski remains as sternly judgmental as ever. When a visitor arrives at his pier-side offices on a recent drizzly day, his opening comment is: "You look like a mess. You've got rain all over your glasses." But Wiezbowski softens when he talks about his former employee Anthony Parks.

"Anthony made himself into a first-rate manager here," Wiezbowski recalls. "We're both strong-willed people, and we had some real peaks and valleys in our relationship. But when he said he wanted to leave, I did everything I could to keep him a little longer."

Throughout the late 1990s, Messrs. Wiezbowski and Parks stayed in touch about twice a year, letting each other know that they were thriving. "I read the newspapers," Wiezbowski says. "I know what's been going on with the Internet." To his surprise, Wiezbowski a few weeks ago got an allotment of 100 Webvan shares. He says that will be a nice addition to money set aside for retirement and his children's education.

What he cherishes most of all, though, is a handwritten note that came with the paperwork for the shares. "You've been a strong influence in my life," Parks wrote, "and I appreciate what you've done. I've fallen into good fortune, and I'd like to share it with the people who are important to me. This means you."

About a two-minute walk from Wiezbowski's office is the kitchen of Neptune's Palace. It is a raucous, bustling place, and the workers here who remember Parks think of him as a hero. The head chef, Lou Chambrone smiles as he remembers how he and Parks together reworked the menu in the late 1980s, getting rid of frozen fish in favor of fresh local catches. To his surprise, Chambrone recently got 400 shares of Webvan, with instructions to set them aside for the later needs of his four young sons.

The most heartfelt words for Parks come from Loggins, the dishwasher. Eleven years after his brush with the law, Loggins remains on the job at Neptune's Palace. Co-workers describe him as "a pillar of strength in the kitchen," showing up on time every day, never calling in sick and always getting the job done quickly and well. "If it wasn't for Anthony," says Loggins, "I'd probably be in jail or dead."

Loggins is getting 100 shares of Webvan. He says he isn't quite sure what he will do with the stock, except to "set it aside" as his old boss, Parks, recommended. It's been eight years since they worked together, but Loggins says he still sees Parks every year or two, when the former restaurant manager comes back to see his old friends. They chat for a little bit each time, Loggins says, "and he never makes me feel that I'm just a dishwasher."

At the top of a winding hillside road in Mill Valley, Calif., just north of San Francisco, Laurie Reemsnyder sits at her kitchen table, grading high-school students' art work. She is a single mother who teaches art at a public high school 15 miles north, in Vallejo, Calif. The pay is skimpy: $30,000 a year. Some of the students are listless or disruptive. But there are always a few with true talent, and on this evening Reemsnyder is admiring a sophomore's dazzling, red and yellow mock-up of a CD music cover.

Reemsnyder says she wouldn't consider herself an especially close friend of Parks's. But they share interests in dance and sports. A few years ago, she helped Webvan design an exercise routine for its drivers, as an injury-prevention step, though some of her ideas were too elaborate and were scrapped. To her surprise, a few weeks ago, she was told that she'd be getting 100 shares of Webvan, too.

"It was so touching that he would do that," Reemsnyder says. She's not sure what she will do with the shares, but thinks she will set them aside to pay for college if her 16-year-old daughter wants a higher education. "He's been like an uncle to my daughter," she says. "And I need that perspective."

Sprinkled throughout Parks's list are nearly a dozen family members, ranging from his mother to a handful of half-brothers and half-sisters in Minnesota whom he has met only a few times in his life. Parks says he sold enough stock to buy his mother a house in prosperous Marin County. He set aside thousands of shares for his daughter Keiala, who is studying to be a nurse practitioner And he allocated thousands more shares for Keiala's mother, even though their relations are sometimes strained.

Doing right by his stepfather and his blood father was much tougher. Parks earmarked 1,000 shares for his stepfather, Willie Worley, a bar owner in Ohio, but says he hasn't heard from him. He decided to give 500 shares to his blood father, Robert Hickman, a one-time school counselor in Minnesota, and talks about that decision only hesitantly. "I'm not looking for a close relationship with him," he says. "After all, he got my mother pregnant when she was 15. I haven't seen him in years."

Even so, on his answering machine a few weeks later, Parks found a halting, bittersweet message of thanks from Minneapolis from the father he hardly knows.

At the very bottom of the gift-stock list is an entry that reads: "Real Role Models Inc. -- 10,000 shares." This is Parks's most ambitious idea, still embryonic. He envisions a foundation that can help young people, especially black teenagers, see other things they can do with their lives besides trying to be pro athletes or movie stars. Parks was a pretty good football player in high school, and has done well at golf since then. But he says he wasn't destined to be a Walter Payton, and he wants to find some way to point the next generation toward more realistic goals.

"Look around," he says. "There are plenty of real role models out there. Don't think about me. Think about someone like Gene Barnes, raising his son by himself. I just need to find a way to get people talking about that."

It's still far too early to know all the consequences of Parks' philanthropy. But it's clear that he has set in motion something much more complex than he ever expected. A gesture this broad evokes more than simple thank-you notes. It causes people to reassess their own lives, and ask some basic, jarring questions: Why is Anthony Parks doing this? What difference will it make? What does it say about his career path? And ours?

One of the people who has thought hardest about the bigger message is Bernadette Robertson, who went to Catholic school with Parks in the 1970s. She is raising three sons by herself after her marriage unraveled. She also is head of human resources for NextCard Inc., which issues credit-cards to online applicants -- a job that requires a keen understanding of what people really want out of life. Parks has given her 1,000 Webvan shares, which she plans to use for her boys' college educations.

"The stock itself is nice, but what matters most is the attention to the kids," Robertson says. "Anthony in 1996 took my oldest son up north to see the Olympic torch. He takes my younger ones to basketball games. That's what's special. Kids need to see his intelligence, his manner. He's giving people stock, but what he's really doing is giving them confidence."

Meanwhile, Robertson says, there is a lonelier side of Parks that most casual friends don't see. Friends are constantly stopping by his home, phoning or keeping in touch by e-mail. But he has never married, and his daughter is 2,000 miles away, studying on the East Coast. As a result, the people in his vast social circle must do double-duty. They are not only his friends; they also must fill the roles usually assumed by immediate family members.

As Parks expands his charitable work, his financial adviser, Warner has gently suggested that Parks think about whether his stock-gift program is nearing its appropriate upper limit. Currently, about 75 people are on the list. "You don't want to get to the point where you're hurting yourself," Warner says. Parks largely agrees. Yet every few weeks, Parks wants to slip in a new name.

This winter, for example, Parks made a quick trip to New York so he could talk to inner-city students in the Bronx about ways that a decent education could offer them a brighter future. "You don't know the potential you have inside you," he told them.

Appearing with Parks was Charlie Ward, the starting point guard for the New York Knicks basketball team. After their remarks, dozens of students swarmed over to Ward, hoping for an autograph. Parks was left by himself, folding up a laptop computer on which he had just delivered a slide-show presentation. As Parks got ready to go, a boy on crutches came up to him. He said his name was Terron Reese, adding that he had a debilitating bone disease. Then the boy asked for Parks's autograph.

"I didn't know what to say," Parks recalled a week later. "Nobody -- and I mean nobody -- in my life has ever asked for my autograph." But he obliged, and then spent 10 minutes talking with the boy about what it takes to succeed. They parted with a promise that Parks would come back to the school in June and give the graduation day speech.

As Parks headed out of the Bronx, he says, he was consumed with one thought: "I've got to figure out something special I can do for him."