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Woog's World / From early Westport chapters, an entrepreneur's unscripted success story

Updated 9:16 pm, Tuesday, September 24, 2013
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Chuck Davis never planned his life. Instead, he says, "I just float down the river. I see opportunities and take gambles. Usually they work out."

The native Westporter has been a go-getter since his Staples High School days. Before graduating in 1978 he served as sports editor for the school newspaper, Inklings; spent three years as a Westport News stringer, and was sports director of WWPT.

For the Staples radio station, his father, Joel, encouraged him to print up letterheads. That earned him press passes from every New York major league team. He covered three straight World Series in the Yankees' press box.

"If you can't write a cogent letter, you can't get a job," he says. He credits his Westport journalistic upbringing for many of the twists and turns of his career.

At Brown University, Davis covered football, soccer, basketball and hockey for AP and UPI. He was a CBS stringer, announced soccer games, and started Bruin Grid Weekly. It was free to students; he charged alumni, and sold advertising. When he graduated, he sold it to another student; it continued publishing for the next 20 years.

Another strong letter earned him interviews with Time Inc. Editor-in-chief Ralph Graves told Davis he was more suited to the business side than writing. "He was right," Davis says. "I was better at AP-style stories than Sports Illustrated."

His first job for Life Monthly was working on inserts -- those annoying, drop-out-of-the-magazine cards. Davis managed to get rid of 37,000 books housed in a warehouse by offering them as a "free mystery gift" for new subscribers.

He was given the first computer in the circulation department. "They thought I could use it to analyze trends," Davis explains.

He moved over to Sports Illustrated -- again in circulation. Videos were new and hot. He ordered 400,000 Michael Jordan videos from the NBA for subscribers. That day, he says, the league created its video division.

After serving as SI's chief financial officers for the Calgary Olympics, Davis moved on to TV Guide. Though the brand was in decline -- the magazine's core subscribers were dying -- he increased circulation from seven million to nine million.

In August 1995, Netscape went public. The online industry was new, and he hopped on board. Davis was courted by several companies, including Disney. Michael Ovitz told him, "If the Internet is a fad, don't worry. We'll find you another job here."

Davis built Disney's NASCAR store. He worked with Disney's catalog. His career was on an ever-increasing upward trajectory.

At 39, though, he realized he'd spent his entire working life with big companies. Armed with an MBA from Harvard, Davis wanted to see what he could do with "a real startup."

BizRate filled the bill. He joined the survey company in December 1999 as president and CEO. His task was to help find a business model. The internet bubble burst, but Davis saw BizRate through to profitability.

In 2005 he sold the company to E.W. Scripps for $525 million. Every employee -- even former ones he had laid off -- held stock.

His next job was chairman and CEO of Fandango. Simultaneously, he was chairman of Shopzilla. Comcast took over Fandango in 2007, but Davis stayed four more years.

His career sounds exhausting. But there's more. Davis has long been active in the Young Professionals Organization. In November 2011 he was elected international chairman. He led 21,000 CEOs under age 50 in 130 countries. Last year, he visited 29 countries, meeting prime ministers and other leaders as a "business ambassador." It was a fascinating experience. "In a lot of places, business people run the country," he says.

He also took on board roles, joining four digital firms. He's a venture partner at Technology Crossroads Ventures.

And there is still more. Davis just left the Brown board of trustees. But he's spending two weeks there this fall filling in for Barrett Hazeltine, teaching a wildly popular entrepreneurship course. Included in the curriculum: Davis' own case study about growing the TV Guide brand. He remains on the board of the Brown Sports Foundation.

Davis also serves his other alma mater. He's in his second year as Harvard's "entrepreneur in residence" His duties cross all disciplines. Last year, he helped oversee 40 startups.

That's a lot of travel from his Pacific Palisades, Calif. home. But when he's there, he's all in. He coached his son Jared (a recent Brown grad) and daughter for many years in youth soccer.

Davis sees many parallels between soccer and business. "You have to find the right roles for people," he says. "Team athletes do real well in companies that value collegiality." Coaching, he adds, "kept me sane during tough times."

Davis sums up his life as "busy, but fun." Not to mention unplanned, free-flowing, and very, very successful.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.