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Captain Jack: The entrepreneur marries diverse skills


Captain Jack wants to know how things work.

It is this trait, more than anything else, that has led him along what could be interpreted as an erratic career path. He has been a broadcast news teacher, a pilot, a traffic reporter, a Christmas tree farm owner and, most recently, head of a Web site design firm.

“Some people prefer to read murder mystery novels,” he said. “I prefer to read tech manuals. I want to know how it works and why it works. I get right into it.”

Captain Jack, whose real name is Bill Dennis, was born in Des Moines and graduated from Dowling High School in 1960. From there he attended Creighton University in Omaha, where he studied radio and television production.

To pick up extra cash while in college, he began working as a camera operator at a local TV station. The job’s hours were right – his shift didn’t start until 5 p.m – and the station was one of the nation’s first to use videotapes, a technology Dennis was eager to learn.

After graduating, Dennis took a job with another Omaha station, an NBC affiliate that broadcast in color. Dennis stayed for one year, learning what he could about color broadcasting technology.

He returned to Des Moines to work at KDPS-TV, Channel 11, which was then owned by the Des Moines Independent School District. He worked as a producer and director and then moved into teaching, becoming a radio and television instructor.

A co-worker was a private pilot. He knew of a Cessna 150 that was for sale and suggested that Dennis, who until then had never been in a small plane, buy it. Dennis did.

It takes most inexperienced pilots a year to earn a private pilot’s license. Dennis completed the requirements in two months and remembers scoring top marks on the test.

“It was all about weight and balance and calculating how much fuel I would need to fly from point A to point B with a certain mile-per-hour headwind,” he said. “I love that stuff.”

Not content with an ordinary operating license, Dennis added to his capabilities. He began with an instrument rating, which allowed him to fly in inclement weather. He earned a commercial rating and then an instructor’s license. He began giving flight lessons.

To supplement his income, Dennis began taking pictures from the plane, shooting farms and homesteads and selling the photos to the homes’ owners.

In 1977, WHO radio was looking for a traffic reporter and Dennis saw an opportunity to marry his love of broadcasting with his new piloting career. He started broadcasting reports in the morning and afternoon rush hours. Between the traffic reporting, aerial photography and flight instruction, he was in his plane six hours a day.

He also wanted to move to the country. He found a new home north of Des Moines, close to Polk City. He had planned to buy five acres, but the high interest rates at that time, combined with the farming crisis, meant that he could buy much more property for a small premium. He bought a 40-acre farm and planted 1,500 Christmas trees to make the land productive. That first winter, deer ate 1,000 of his seedlings.

He also wanted more flying time.

In the early ’80s, he started flying banners at Iowa State University and University of Iowa football games. The letters were expensive and figuring out how many he needed to buy to complete the messages was tricky.

“I needed to find a way to buy the least number of letters,” he said.

He bought a personal computer, learned the BASIC programming language, and wrote a program that did the calculations for him. He wrote and sold programs to others. It was the beginning of a business that would morph into Captain Jack Communciations.

Meanwhile, the traffic reports were becoming more popular. His two hours in the air for WHO had expanded to four. His working day stretched at both ends, beginning at 5 a.m. and ending at 6 p.m.

He began to pour more energy into the Christmas tree farm, spending $25,000 annually in advertising. He gave out free candy and popcorn to children. The farm’s popularity exploded, eventually becoming a 50-employee operation that attracted 35,000 visitors and sold 20,000 trees each year. It got to be too big, so Dennis slashed his advertising. The numbers declined, but not by much.

In 1994, the heart of Captain Jack Communications began. The Web hosting business was beginning, and Dennis quickly learned ways to manipulate home pages so that they consistently appeared at the top of search engine queries. That strategy is becoming increasingly popular as the Internet’s Web page count grows. It is also a tactic that yields results.

Type “Christmas trees” into a Google search and Captain Jack’s Christmas Tree Farm comes up third out of 993,000 pages devoted to the subject.      “We do Web sites to get people ranked,” he said. “Not many people do that.”

Today, Captain Jack Communications is the state’s largest Web-hosting company, and it is expanding. The company employs 17 people, up from 14 last year. Dennis plans to add to his sales staff in the coming months. Last week, the company announced it would lease another 1,200 square feet of office space next to its Ankeny headquarters.

The company has annual sales of about $1 million. It is not always profitable, though Dennis said 2003 has been “a good year, considering the economy.”  

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