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  1. Technology
July 22, 1994


By CBR Staff Writer

In the early hours of Friday, June 24, Kenneth Nicholas Pontikes died at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, aged 54. Ken Pontikes was diagnosed as having colon cancer last December; it was an aggressive strain that resisted every effort by doctors to stem its spread. To the end, according to his family, he retained his buoyant spirit and his infectious smile. Pontikes founded Comdisco in 1969, using $5,000 he borrowed from his father, Nicholas, a Greek immigrant who owned a South Side Chicago grocery. Pontikes spent five prior years working for IBM, which he joined the year he graduated Southern Illinois University. In just 25 years, Comdisco became the world’s largest computer lessor, with shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Its revenue exceeds $2,000m exclusive of Promodata, the half-billion-dollar French lessor Comdisco will soon acquire. For the year ending September 30, 1993, Comdisco reported earnings of $80m assets of $4,960m and net cash flow of $1,900m. The company purchased $1,500m of equipment for its lease portfolio. Comdisco employs 1,900 people, 1,650 of them in the United States, the remainder at its offices across Canada, throughout Europe, in Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific Rim. Comdisco’s activities have expanded to include the financing of medical equipment, electronic manufacturing machinery and other capital assets; the provision of technical services and disaster recovery services as well as various other financial and technological endeavours. Like IBM after Tom Watson Sr, Comdisco is resilient. * * * More than a dozen years ago a curious reporter asked Ken Pontikes if he could visit Comdisco and try to learn a little about what the company did. Pontikes assented. Not long thereafter, Pontikes had one of his people meet the reporter at O’Hare Airport and bring him to Comdisco’s nearby headquarters. The reporter was taken directly to Pontikes’ office, where he was welcomed by a warm, energetic fellow with a wry twinkle in his eyes that bottle-bottom eyeglasses couldn’t hide. So, Pontikes asked, you want to see what we do? Okay. Just pull that chair closer to my desk. The reporter sat there all day as Pontikes ran Comdisco. For lunch, they both had liverwurst sandwiches. They ate them at the desk. * * * On Monday, June 27, a wake was held for Kenneth Pontikes at the Stirlen & Pieper Funeral Home in Barrington, Illinois. Friends stood in line more than an hour to pay their last respects. Nobody was surprised at the crowd. Nobody minded waiting. The next day at 11 o’clock, a simple, touching funeral service was held at St Emily’s Catholic Church in Mount Prospect, Illinois. St Emily’s is a large modern building, circular rather than cruciform, set on a campus that includes a school. St Emily’s seats 1,200. Every pew was full. The aisles were full. There were people in the doorways. And there was a gigantic priest, Father John Smith, who spoke with a gentleness appropriate to a fellow you wouldn’t want to meet on your way to a rebound. Smith was captain of the Notre Dame basketball team in 1957 and an All-American. Father Smith was dutifully burying a younger man, a captain of industry and all-American. * * * On October 19, 1987, Wall Street crashed. Comdisco had taken some heavy and, it turned out, wrong arbitrage positions. The company was out more than $75m. What does that feel like? we asked Comdisco’s chairman and largest shareholder. I never thought we would ever have that much to lose, Pontikes replied. I’m proud we can pay the bill. I suppose we’ll have to go earn it back now, he added with no bitterness whatsoever. Comdisco did earn it all back before too long, and then some. * * * At the funeral, Ken Pontikes’ son, Nick, tried to distill the essence of his father’s character. He was a teacher, Nick said. Yes, he was. * * * They were prepared to feed as many as a thousand people in Rosemont, Illinois, after the Pontikes funeral, but it is impossible to say exactly how many turned up for the buffet in the huge ballroom in the Rosemont Civic Center. People sat down

to eat, but mostly they milled around the tables or outside in the lobby. A lot of prominent people from the computer leasing business were there. Some worked for Comdisco. But a considerable number were the bosses of Comdisco’s competitors. Many had made fortunes buying, selling and leasing computers. We all got rich, said one, because of Pontikes. * * *Ken Pontikes helped build what is now called the Pontikes Center at Southern Illinois University. He served as chairman of the Chicago area chapter of United Way. He sponsored Maryville Academy City of Youth, to which his family asked friends to send memorial contributions in lieu of flowers. And in recent months as he gave generously to institutions conducting medical research, in the hope that someday we might save people with his affliction, or with other diseases that are very tough to cure. * * * Comdisco invented some of the capital financing structures used in computer leasing and perfected numerous others. As a direct result, Comdisco saved users billions of dollars in lease costs. The company also was a significant contributor to the creation and maturation of the used equipment market that has saved purchasers additional billions and allowed user enterprises to recover vast amounts invested in purchased equipment they outgrew. Comdisco owns or manages on behalf of investors more IBM equipment than any company except IBM itself. * * * There are a lot of bright folk in the computer leasing business, but only a handful of the trade’s moguls possess an intellect comparable to that of Ken Pontikes. One of the very brightest, who spent most of his career in commercial combat with Comdisco, confided in us at the reception. Although he is not the sort of fellow who is easy with his affection, he had been in touch with Pontikes a lot towards the end, finally able to express the fondness and admiration that we believe had usually given way to the passions of rivalry in earlier years. The fellow had called Pontikes during his final days to wish him well. But he didn’t get very far with that line of conversation. All he wanted to know, our friend related, was how my wife and baby were doing. That’s who Ken Pontikes was. * * * How do you measure the character of a person? How do you describe that measure to another? How do you explain the pleasure of knowing someone who was a great man, and of having him know you? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you just say this: Thank you, Kenny. – Hesh WienerCopyright 1994 Technology News Ltd.

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