Daniel Gregory; investor had eye for talent, knack for success

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / January 14, 2011

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As cofounder of the venture capital firm Greylock Partners, which helped launch companies that defined the business community in Boston and the Route 128 corridor, Daniel Gregory had an eye for spotting talented people with good ideas. The secret, he said, lay in rigorous study, not magic or luck.

“Companies don’t grow and succeed through some sort of miracle or because you put a lot of money into them,’’ he told Harvard Business School in 2003, when he was among the recipients of an alumni achievement award. “During the ’90s, the process began to look ridiculously easy, but it’s not. It involves hard work that takes a considerable amount of focus and dedication.’’

Mr. Gregory, who also served for about a year as secretary of economic affairs under Governor William F. Weld, died Jan. 6 in his Westwood home of complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 81 and had continued to work with and advise companies after being diagnosed 16 years ago.

“What characterizes my father is a fascination in other people, an interest in what they want to accomplish,’’ said his son Daniel Jr. of Weston. “If anyone came to him with something that was important to them, he first would work to understand who they were, then to understand their vision, and then he would throw his support to them in the long haul.’’

That ability to balance enthusiasm and an exacting examination of ideas is something that increasingly is in short supply, said Joshua Boger, founder of the Cambridge biotechnology company Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

Mr. Gregory “based his savvy investment decisions on detailed industry and company analysis, but, unlike many in this business who have followed, he never let the analytics take the primary role in his judgments,’’ Boger wrote in an e-mail. “He bet on people and on management teams, understanding that they knew more about specialty areas than he could. By focusing on integrity and passion and by rigorously vetting that focus on management, Dan helped create fantastic returns on investment and helped create many great companies.’’

Chief executives “were the rock stars for him, and he really enjoyed working with them,’’ his son said. “They were very talented people, and he felt privileged to help them out. He had the capital people wanted, but he was interested in finding people with a dream and a vision, and he would throw what he could behind them to make it happen.’’

Daniel Schurz Gregory was born in Corning, N.Y., and was a boy when his family moved to Perrysburg, Ohio, where his father ran a business that made construction materials such as rivets.

He graduated from Culver Academy, a preparatory school in Culver, Ind., in 1947, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1951 from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

While home from college in summer 1950, he met Madeline Lee when she was driving across the country from her home in Boston. They married in 1952 and initially lived in Newport, R.I., where he was based for more than three years while serving in the US Navy.

From boyhood days on the Maumee River, which runs next to Perrysburg, and Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York, Mr. Gregory was an ardent sailor. Years later, when passengers on his boats grew discomfited by choppy waters, he might mention the 15- and 20-foot swells he encountered while serving on Navy destroyers in the North Atlantic.

“His real love was for the ocean, and not just sailing and racing and yacht clubs,’’ said his son, who added that summers usually included sailing trips up the coast to Maine.

Along with sailing the East Coast up to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in Canada, Mr. Gregory also designed boats and participated in contests, among them the races to Bermuda from Newport, R.I., or Marion.

“He was a really, really significant boat builder, and probably built 10 to 15 boats over the course of his life with others helping him and also on his own,’’ his son said.

Mr. Gregory went to Harvard Business School after the Navy, graduating in 1957 with a master’s of business administration, and worked for a couple of companies before cofounding Greylock in 1965 with William Elfers.

“From the beginning, I believed in collegiality,’’ Elfers, who died in 2005, told Harvard Business School in 2003. “That would be a crucial element in selecting and developing the general partners and creating the framework for the firm’s culture.’’

In Mr. Gregory, he had a partner with whom people wanted to work.

“He was 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3 and a handsome man, so people really gravitated to him and felt very comfortable with him, particularly when they learned that his interest was not in his successes, but their successes,’’ said Mr. Gregory’s son.

Mr. Gregory served on the board of the National Venture Capital Association, an industry organization, from 1978 to 1985, the last two years in top leadership roles.

In 1991, he withdrew from Greylock and the boards of businesses for which he had been a venture capitalist so that he could serve as state secretary of economic affairs. David Warsh, a former Globe economics reporter and columnist, called Mr. Gregory “the most talented businessman ever to occupy’’ the economics affairs office, but politics turned out to be a poor fit, and Mr. Gregory left after about 16 months.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Gregory leaves a daughter, Charlotte Surgenor of Dover; another son, Peter of Dedham; a brother, George of Vermillion, Ohio; a sister, Judith Bowes of Washington, D.C.; and eight grandchildren.

A memorial service was held.

At home, Mr. Gregory forged as individual a relationship with each of his grandchildren as he did with the chief executives whose businesses he helped turn into successes.

“He found what was special about each of them,’’ his son said. “My father was all about other people and not himself, which is refreshing in this day and age.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at