he Eureka moment arrived as he stood holding a pay phone at the Denver International Airport.
Ken Jones was talking on a pay phone one afternoon back in 1983 ... when he came up with an excellent idea: What if you could find a way to use telephones to retrieve information from databases, or route calls by using the touch tones on the dialing pad by combining state-ofthe-art computer technology with state-of-the-art digitized voice devices? During the next 27 years, this innovative entrepreneur launched half a dozen different digital-based communications companies – while spearheading the development of many of the “voice mail” and interactive phone applications the world relies on today. By Tom Nugent
Kenneth E. Jones (B.S. ’68) was about to undergo a transformation that inspired him to launch a 27-year career as an entrepreneur with a knack for building and then managing successful “startup” ventures. During the next two and a half decades, he would have a dramatic impact on the rapidly evolving world of electronic communications in the 21st century. But he didn’t know it then. All Jones knew – on this cold afternoon in late January of 1983 – was that his non-stop airplane flight from Denver to San Francisco had just been delayed due to a howling Rocky Mountain blizzard. Jones was in the middle of calling his wife, Kim, long-distance, in order to tell her about the inevitable delay. The former UNL chemical engineering student entered his credit card number and listened to a series of beeps and clicks, as his credit card was electronically verified and the longdistance charges were authorized. A moment later, after the transaction had been completed, a flat and obviously tape-recorded voice came on the line and
said two very simple words: “Thank you!” “Wait a minute,” he told himself as the phone began ringing at his home near San Francisco. “That was a recording. The phone company just ‘thanked’ me for using my credit card to make a long-distance call ... but they did it automatically, without having to rely on an employee. How did they do that?” He immediately asked himself, if I could enter some numbers and get a thank you, I wonder if I could enter data and find out what the flight departure time will be? Or the closing prices of various stocks and bonds? By the time he got to California he had a long list of applications that might make the touch tone telephone the average man’s home computer. As he chatted with his spouse, California attorney Kim Lauridsen-Jones (J.D. ’71), his mind was racing. Jones was a chemical engineer (and a Harvard MBA), and he knew little about telecommunications. As a matter of fact, he’d spent the previous three years running the operations of a meat-processing company based in Iowa. He knew lots about the price of hogs and lots about the NEBRASKAMAGAZINE
College of Engineering Names Welcome Center for Jones
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman (right) honors Ken Jones.
en Jones was honored by his alma mater in November at the dedication of “The Kenneth Jones Welcome Center” in Othmer Hall on the UNL campus. Dedicated at the same time was the Robert W. Brightfelt Distinguished Wall of Honor. “The Kenneth Jones Welcome Center and the Robert W. Brightfelt Distinguished Alumni Wall of Honor represent the longtime commitment and energy of these two alumni on behalf of the College of Engineering,” said David Allen, dean of the College of Engineering. “In this 100th year for the college, we are happy to celebrate with our loyal alumni and honor these individuals’ outstanding dedication.” Jones, ’68, of Half Moon Bay, Calif., founder of Automated Call Processing Corp. (1983), Ditech Communications (1990) and Globe Wireless (1999), is a member of the Engineering Dean’s Advisory Board and supports engineering scholarships and academic programs. Jones received the 2009 Nebraska Alumni Association Achievement Award. Brightfelt, ’65 ’67, Lake Forest, Ill., retired group president of Dade Behring in 2002, is chair of the Dean’s Advisory Board of the UNL College of Engineering and a trustee of the University of Nebraska Foundation. He was also awarded the 2009 Nebraska Alumni Association Distinguished Service Award. The welcome center offers an Internet-equipped large screen display and furnishings that encourage guests to explore the College of Engineering. The wall of honor depicts award-winning alumni whose engineering careers and efforts on behalf of the college serve as models for students and alumni.
cost of shipping gourmet hams from Iowa to the world, but he didn’t know how long-distance telecommunications worked. Still, he was curious. It was part of his nature. Some background: Jones had grown up in Lincoln as the son of a wonderfully creative engineer at Goodyear. Lester Jones had amazed his son frequently with his boldness and independent spirit. On one occasion during the early 1950s, for example, just as television was being rolled out as a consumer product, Ken and his brother Gordon (BSME, ’71) insisted that the family buy a television to watch the “Howdy Doody” TV show. Lester pointed out that his family couldn’t afford an expensive set. “But no problem,” he told his 8-year-old son. “Come on, Ken, let’s go down in the basement and build one!” And over the next few months they did. And now, as he sat in the snow-walloped Denver airport in 1983, Ken Jones was following his dad’s wonderful advice: “Be bold, son. If you decide you want to accomplish something, go for it!” As soon as he returned to San Francisco, Jones went straight to work on his telephone project. First he learned everything he could about state-of-the-art phone communications. Then he taught himself the ins and outs of computer-based telephone “switching” technology. He began recruiting the kind of computer and electrical engineering talent he would need to become a player in what became “interactive voice response systems” that relied on “digital signal processing” to accomplish a variety of tasks. At the same time, Jones went about the formidable task of raising several million dollars in “venture capital” funds from investors who had to be convinced that his development and marketing plans would actually work. They did. Before the year had ended, Ken Jones was the president and CEO of a brand-new corporation – the Automated Call Processing Corporation, or ACP – which soon was located on the cutting-edge of digitally managed interactive telephone messaging technology. Seven years later, Jones sold that successful startup company to telephone giant MCI ... and then immediately launched his next digital signal processing-based startup, Ditech Corporation, which he took public in 1999. “What we were able to do at ACP was to develop a switching mechanism that would permit all sorts of new interactive voice responses,” said Jones, while describing the
successful evolution of his startup. “I think we were among the first to build systems that would allow a company to install an automated phone system of the kind that would tell a customer, for example: ‘Please enter your flight number, or credit card number …’ or ‘Please press one to be routed to the Omaha office…’ “It wasn’t easy to bring the engineering and the financial side together,” said the entrepreneur, “and I take no credit at all for the technological breakthroughs that were required. From day one, I’ve sought out the best engineering talent I could find, starting in Silicon Valley but now in Florida, the United Kingdom and Europe as well as India and Asia. I have been much more of a strategic and “vision” guy with decent financial skills and the ability to bring the classic functions in any company together.” One key to success as an entrepreneur, Jones said, is to make sure engineering, sales, finance and operations are all working in sync. Without that coordination, any enterprise will fail. Since 1991, Jones has been the CEO and now chairman of Globe Wireless Corporation – yet another of his startups – which is today a leading provider of marine communications worldwide, with offices in 23 different countries. Again, built around “digital signaling processing” technology, Globe Wireless uses satellitebased communications and a network of high- frequency radio stations to help ships send and receive e-mail, Internet and voice calls any time of day or night regardless of their location on the high seas. Ask Ken Jones where he got his willingness to take “the necessary risks” as a global entrepreneur, and he will tell you about a powerfully inspirational poster he kept in his room while growing up in Lincoln. “My dad gave me that poster,” he said, “and it featured a gorgeous color photo of the snow-covered Mt. Everest in the Himalayas. Below the photo was a quote from a poem by Goethe, which I memorized and can still quote from today: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!” Born and raised in Lincoln, Jones was the son of two hardy parents who’d spent their childhoods “on the prairies of South Dakota in homes without electricity, but with a great deal of gumption and energy and a willingness to work very hard to build good lives for themselves.” After becoming the first of his clan to attend college, Lester Jones earned an mechanical
engineering degree, served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and then came to work in the engineering department the Goodyear facility in Lincoln ... where his son Kenneth soon blossomed into a hardhitting center on his high school football and basketball teams. Arriving at UNL in the autumn of 1964, Jones thought about trying out for the freshman basketball team. “In those days I was six-foot-five and I weighed about 180 pounds,” he remembered with a rueful chuckle, “and I thought I was pretty tough. But it didn’t take me long to learn my lesson. After only a few weeks I got my jaw broken during a scrimmage – and the injury was so bad that I had to have the jaw wired shut in order to heal. “At that point, I started asking myself if I wanted to be an athlete or a scholar, and the scholar definitely won out. I focused on taking math and science courses, and it wasn’t long before I was neck-deep in chemical engineering. And I discovered that I loved the challenge in solving engineering problems by wracking your brain to come up with a creative solution.” After nailing down his UNL engineering degree in 1968, Jones spent four years as a U.S. Navy officer who served on a destroyer in the North Atlantic, a fleet tug in the Gulf of Alaska and was the captain of the U.S. Navy’s first hydrofoil, USS Flagstaff (PGH-1), part of Coastal River Squadron One. He said those years at sea were crucial in shaping his development as an entrepreneur who achieved a great deal of success because of his “willingness to step up to the plate and take the risks that are required for leadership.” One of Jones’ “most challenging moments” occurred in the mid-1980s, when he called on the legendary William G. McGowan – the famed telecommunications entrepreneur who had by then become chairman at MCI Communications – in the hope of persuading him to invest several million dollars in Jones’ fledgling startup company, ACP. McGowan was famous for routinely working a 15-hour day ... and was known throughout his industry as a tough-as-nails negotiator when the managers of any enterprise came to him seeking support. “I remember taking the elevator up to his office, and then standing outside his door for a moment,” Jones remembered. “I took a deep breath … and then I told myself: ‘Hey, he puts his pants on the same way I do every morning.’ And I also remembered that Goethe poster on my wall: ‘Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’
“Then I pushed the door open and went and talked with him. And he actually turned out to be very pleasant, very friendly. And at the end of the day, we managed to secure the investment funds we needed ... and MCI eventually wound up buying ACP and making it part of their own operation.” After nearly three decades as a successful entrepreneur and corporate manager, the 63-year-old Jones said he’s “having more fun than ever” as he goes about the daily business of helping with the far-flung Globe Wireless offices and radio stations around the world. Still happily married to Kim and the father of a successful biomedical engineer who’s also become an entrepreneur – son Zachary – Jones still gets “a huge kick” out of finding ways to build things, in much the way that he and his dad once built their own TV set. One of Jones’ most interesting current “building projects,” he said, is his ongoing effort to help the university put together a “technology transfer” program that will make it easier for professors and researchers to more easily take new products and inventions to market, after they’ve been developed and perfected at university laboratories. Said Dean of the College of Engineering David Allen: “Ken Jones is a fabulous resource for UNL. He has played a very active and pivotal role in the development of this institution’s approach to transfer of technology into the marketplace, and I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of his contribution to the University of Nebraska. “Ken comes back to campus at least 15 times a year, and spends an enormous amount of his time here. He’s on our Engineering External Advisory Board and he’s very supportive in helping to fund scholarships for needy students. He’s the archetype of the loyal alumnus who gives back to his college – and we’re very lucky to have him.” Ask Jones why he spends so much time these days helping his alma mater to improve its engineering academics, and he answers with a cheerful laugh. “I guess I’m a guy who just enjoys putting things together,” he said. “For me, helping create a program like the one we’re working on at the university is another creative way of launching a startup. “I enjoy the process enormously ... and it’s also my way of giving back to the university for all it has done for me. Creating new enterprises is fun, that’s all, and it’s even better fun when I can do it right with people from the University of Nebraska!” n
This innovative entrepreneur launched half a dozen different digital-based communications companies – while spearheading the development of...