WASHINGTON -- When two Russian immigrants and their American financial backer needed marketing help for their innovative electric motor, they turned to a merchant banker at one of the nation's largest investment houses -- retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark.
The meeting at the Washington office of Stephens Inc. in late 2001 proved fortuitous for both Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO, and the principals in WaveCrest Laboratories, at the time a small research and development company in Dulles, Va.
"They hit it off pretty much right away," said WaveCrest spokesman Tom McMahon.
Clark signed on as a consultant to the company. In little more than a year, he was chairman of the company's newly created board of directors, a position he intends to keep as he campaigns for the Democratic nomination for president.
The company's first product -- a bicycle powered by the new electric propulsion system -- will begin rolling off the assembly lines in November, and the Pentagon's Special Operations Command already has purchased prototypes.
Clark "has been helpful to our company in putting them in touch with the right people both inside the military and in the commercial sector and in promoting our technology to them," he said. "He knew the military structure so well he would counsel them who to contact."
Clark's relationship with WaveCrest is just one example of how he has parlayed his 35 years of military experience into a budding business career in his three years since retiring from the Army as a four-star general.
He serves on the boards of at least four other companies, worked as a military consultant for Cable News Network and started his own consulting firm in his hometown of Little Rock, Ark.
Clark's entry into the business world was facilitated by the Stephens Group, the parent company of a privately held family financial giant in Little Rock that operates one of the largest investment banks off Wall Street.
The influential company has been on the periphery of several Washington political scandals in the past three decades, from the resignation of former President Jimmy Carter's budget director in 1977 to the campaign fund-raising investigations of the mid-1990s.
Clark joined the Stephens Group as a managing director for merchant banking in mid-2001. That December, Acxiom Inc., a Little Rock data analysis company, signed a $300,000 contract with Stephens to obtain Clark's help in lobbying the government for homeland security business.
After leaving Stephens earlier this year, he signed another $150,000 consulting agreement with the Acxiom.
That contract was terminated when he announced his candidacy, according to Acxiom, but he remains a paid board member.
One of Clark's Democratic rivals, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, said Sunday that Clark should explain his service on Acxiom's board given the privacy concerns he has raised about some post-Sept. 11, 2001, anti-terrorism laws.
At the Stephens Group, Clark's role "was primarily that of evaluating and looking for investment opportunities in the technology and defense areas," said Frank Thomas, a spokesman for the investment house.
In that capacity, Clark worked directly for Jackson Stephens, the billionaire chairman of the company; his son, Warren Stephens, the company's president; and other Stephens family members and senior company executives, according to Thomas.
It was Jackson Stephens who helped Bert Lance dispose of his stock in the National Bank of Georgia after Lance was forced to resign as Carter's budget director in 1977.
Stephens also was a business partner with Indonesian tycoon Mochtar Riady and his son, James Riady. The Riadys owned The Lippo Group, which was a key player in the investigation into allegations of illegal foreign campaign contributions during the 1996 election.
It was the Washington office of the Stephens Group that John Huang, a former Lippo executive, used in 1996 to make numerous phone calls while working at the Commerce Department, where he had access to U.S. intelligence. Huang, the Democratic Party's chief Asian-American fund-raiser, pleaded guilty in 1999 to violating campaign finance laws.
Stephens officials will not say what companies or investment opportunities Clark identified or evaluated for the Stephens family. But Thomas said Clark joined the company after the family became interested in exploring investment opportunities in the defense, aerospace and technology sectors.
Not long after Clark joined the Stephens Group, the founders of WaveCrest -- Alexander Pyntikov, Boris Maslov and Allen Andersson -- learned of his new assignment and came calling to pitch their transportation technology.
"The word had gotten around town that he was there and people started knocking on his door, which is what our founders did," said McMahon. "He immediately saw the technological promise for both inside and outside the military."