The Florida Venture Forum honored Jan. 31 two of the Founding Fathers of Florida's venture capital industry — Don Burton, founder of Tampa-based South Atlantic Capital, and Jonathan Cole, partner at the Fort Lauderdale law firm of Edwards Wildman Palmer LLP.
Forum members presented Burton and Cole the organization's first Champion's Award for their longtime contributions to the state's venture capital industry. Pioneers both, Burton started farming Florida for up-and-coming companies in 1979, and Cole began his VC legal career here in 1981.
A Macon, Ga., native, Burton landed in Florida after working almost five years at Fidelity Investments' venture capital group in Boston. Fidelity assigned him to comb the Southeast for companies and investors.
“There literally were only two venture funds here,” Burton told attendees at the Florida Venture Forum's annual conference in Ponte Vedra. “I thought Florida was a tremendous opportunity.”
So with his wife, three children and a fourth on the way, Burton set up shop in Tampa, forming first the Burton Partnership and in 1983 South Atlantic Capital. He hoped to raise $10 million from investors for his first fund. But the appetite among Florida investors enabled him to raise $15 million.
Since then, and up to 2000, Burton's South Atlantic Capital raised $180 million in four limited partnerships; funded 65 companies in the Southeast; and generated a 31% gross annualized return for investors.
Among Burton's hits: Outback Steakhouse, Regal Cinemas, ITC Cellular, Knology and Telecom USA. His mentorship also spawned two more VC companies in Tampa — Ballast Point Ventures and Lovett Miller & Co., each headed by South Atlantic alumni.
Burton regaled Florida's venture capitalists with stories from the early days. He recalled pitching Janet Hickey of General Electric to invest in South Atlantic's first fund. She told Burton to go visit an executive at IBM. “You tell him I'm putting in $2 million, and if he's got any balls, he'll do it, too.” Burton relayed Hickey's comments word for word to the IBMer and scored another $2 million investment.
“Thirty-five years later,” Burton told his listeners, “I think the opportunity now is even greater.”