On Friday, Nov. 9, AOL Time Warner chief executive Gerald Levin
mounted a podium at the Millennium Broadway Hotel in Times Square and started
in on a speech to a hall packed full of investors. The host was J.P. Morgan,
and Mr. Levin-fresh off the company jet from business in China, and then the Harry Potter premiere in London-was
earthtone-attired in post-merger AOL Time Warner wear: a tweed jacket, thick
denim shirt and slipper-like suede shoes.
Mr. Levin-a suit-and-tie man if ever there was one-may well have
embraced the casual AOL Friday culture, but the message he had for the investor
community that day was not the message that had been previously coming from the
world’s largest Internet company.
He spoke softly into the microphone. AOL Time Warner, he said,
“operates as a public trust as well as for our shareholders. I will provide
whatever resources necessary to CNN, NY1, to all the magazines; I will do
whatever it takes. And I’m not interested in hearing what happens to margins
with respect to these expenses. Things,” he said, “have really changed.”
He then paused and said:
“And it is a profound change.”
The rest of Mr. Levin’s presentation was skewed heavily towards
Time Warner’s upcoming film slate: Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was positioned to be a smash, Ocean’s 11 had massive star power, and
Jim Carrey was going sentimental in The
Majestic . In terms of growth in its other businesses, like advertising,
subscriptions and AOL itself, there was little guidance given. Mr. Levin
focused on content, on responsibility and on service. The message was clear.
For any investors who were confused, Mr. Levin’s message was: It’s a new world, and AOL Time Warner has a
new mission-get used to it.
“I’ll keep using this phrase ‘public trust,’” Mr. Levin said
after his speech. “It was like that at Time. I’m the C.E.O., and this is what
I’m going to do. I don’t care what anyone else says.”
Gerald Levin, who about two years ago agreed to have his company
taken over, has done what Gerald Levin seems to do: He took over the takeover.
A philosopher-prince of the American media establishment, he was certain of his
function in the new universe, a fact that was confirmed by the vast events of
this autumn. Before Sept. 11, AOL Time Warner was a media monster trying to come to terms with its post-merger persona.
Following the events of Sept. 11, AOL Time Warner was no longer an Internet
company. It is now what it originally was in 1923, when another man on a mission-Henry
Luce-slapped together the first issue of Time
and began selling punchy, character-driven stories to an American public
starved for concise information, jaunty attitude and the embodiment of a
revolutionized age. When Time Inc. merged with Warner Bros. in 1989, the great
mythologizers of the media merged with the mythmakers. With the addition of CNN
and eventually the AOL deal, the power of the company became its ability to
report, create, tell, analyze and deliver the American story globally as no other
entity can. And as the Internet dissolved into the rest of the media-and was
financially and culturally brought down to size as just another delivery
system-the great storytelling company became more Time Warner AOL than the
other way around.
And after Sept. 11, Gerald Levin had an immediate perception: His
company had the capability to report, create and deliver the American story at
a moment when it was needed more than it had ever been.
His ability to comprehend and oversee those parts of the company,
from news to entertainment, made his the
cultural influence on AOL Time Warner-not chairman Steve Case’s, not co–chief
operating officer Bob Pittman’s, but Gerald Levin’s. Coming up on the two-year
anniversary of what was once perceived as the AOL hijacking of Time Warner, the
62-year-old Mr. Levin is driving the monster. At the time of the merger, those
who knew Mr. Levin warned the uninformed not to underestimate him. And they
were right. He had a focused perception of his company’s strengths, and now
he’s using them.
As in the conciseness of this statement at the J.P. Morgan
conference: “I like movies,” he said. “And now, what is most important to
people, besides news and information, is storytelling.” It was as though Luce
had become a Warner brother.
Mr. Levin, as well as all
other AOL Time Warner executives, declined to comment for this story,
but the Jerry Levin revival shouldn’t come
as a surprise. He is the great boardroom survivor of his era. In the early
70′s, he was a young cable executive running HBO for Chuck Dolan. He ended up
at Time Inc. when it took over the company, while Mr. Dolan, his boss and HBO’s
founder, landed in the Long Island suburbs with a few thousand cable
subscribers. Somehow, the diminutive, sometimes bemused-looking Mr. Levin
outlasted them all.
Now Mr. Levin is lopping off more corporate heads, as he’s been
doing for more than a decade now. He ran roughshod over Warner Bros.’
management in the early 1990′s; in 1992, he fired nine directors on his Time
Warner board; and in the past year, he’s nosed down the khaki-clad AOL Internet
interlopers from Dulles, Va. Some executives see a little bit better in a dark
time, and Mr. Levin is one of them.
He has endured difficult times in the past, which may have
steeled him to keep his head: He lost his 31-year-old son Jonathan to a
murderer four years ago. On another plane, he lost $100 million in a 1994
investment in interactive television in Orlando, Fla. And as a man who has
fired hundreds of employees over the years, he understands the value in
dispensing the ugly truths. His attitude is in sharp contrast to the giddy,
boomtown-growth promises that AOL executives became schooled in making to
investors. Mr. Pittman and his chief financial officer, Mike Kelly, both from
AOL, talked a silky-smooth game to Wall Street-$40 billion in revenues, 30
percent growth in cash flow, etc., etc.-but they were the last pixilated
Panglosses of the Internet era, and their exuberance was junked after Sept. 11.
Earlier this month, Mr. Kelly was removed from his corporate post
in New York and rotated back to AOL headquarters in Dulles, a few days after a Wall Street Journal article had him
yelling profanities at two high-profile Merrill Lynch analysts who had
downgraded AOL Time Warner stock. His replacement, Wayne Pace, is a Time Warner
And this August, Glenn Britt, an almost 30-year Time Warner man
and longtime associate of Mr. Levin, was named the chief executive of Time
Warner’s cable unit. Before that, WB Network founder Jamie Kellner was given
Turner Broadcasting Systems. “I have a habit, and this will continue, of making
constant changes with people,” Mr. Levin said on Nov. 9. “Like some managers
like to change margins; I like to change
people.” Cross-fertilization, Mr. Levin calls it, and now with a
distinctive Time Warner aroma.
“If you look at all the big job changes, they have all gone to
Time Warner people,” said one senior investment banker. “Jamie Kellner, Glenn
Britt … they didn’t bring in AOL people for any of those positions. And then
there’s Mike Kelly. You can argue that has been a failed attempt at
cross-fertilization.” More and more, it seems, the competition with AOL seems
to be shifting in favor of Time Warner executives. And it happened just as Wall
Street awoke to the fact that the pie-in-the-sky promises made by AOL were not
going to happen.
That’s not news: In a brutal media recession, many companies
downgrade their growth forecasts. But Mr. Levin took another approach. When a
company refers to itself as a “public trust” and suggests that the exigencies
of its corporate mission may well supersede its commitments to shareholders, it
steps onto another plane. Somehow, Mr. Levin summoned enough nobility and
gritty pomp to exalt his company’s purpose. It’s a message that could only have
come from a tough executive steeped in his company’s tradition. He looked at
AOL Time Warner and chose to promote service, integrity, uplift-all at odds
with the narcissistic message of the “You’ve Got Mail!” revolution.
Not that Mr. Levin’s statement of a public trust is
“Now that the Internet stuff has proven to be fiction, Jerry and
the Time Warner people are going back to the businesses that make money,” said
one senior investment banker familiar with the inside workings of the company.
” Harry Potter will make money, music
will make money, cable will make a shitload of money, as will Turner and WB.
This was a great company. For the AOL guys to come in and say ‘We are the
future of media and you guys are old news’ irritated a lot of people. Now
people are saying, ‘You know what? There is no such thing as Internet
Nevertheless, AOL’s cash flow-expected to be $3 billion this
year-is nothing to sniff at.
Two years ago, it all seemed so different. In late 1999, when Mr.
Levin and AOL C.E.O. Steve Case started batting around ideas, Mr. Levin was
under pressure from the Street to develop an Internet strategy. Time Warner had
stopped growing, and more than needing a growth injection, Mr. Levin needed a
crew that could sell Wall Street on the idea of infinite growth. Mr. Case,
along with his president, Mr. Pittman, and his C.F.O., Mr. Kelly, had done this
brilliantly, producing one whiz-bang growth quarter after another. Investors
bought the message, shooting the AOL stock from $2 in 1997 to $91 and change by
January 2000. That was seductive to Mr. Levin, then Time Warner’s C.E.O., whose
relationship with Wall Street had always been fraught with assorted tensions.
Despite cable growth, Time Warner was burdened with billions in debt and could
never produce the AOL-style triple-digit growth rates that left traders and
fund managers wet with joy. So Mr. Levin cast his lot with a bunch of
fortysomething Internet wizards-much as he’d done in 1989, when he gambled on
his ability to survive with smooth-talking Warner boss Steve Ross.
Throughout much of 2000 and 2001, Mr. Pittman, named co–chief
operating officer with Time Warner’s Richard Parsons, was AOL Time Warner’s
primary voice when it came to wooing the Street. Responsible for the company’s
growth engine, subscription businesses such as magazines, cable and AOL (Mr.
Parson’s brief covered content, such as films and music), Mr. Pittman sold the
product. Forty billion in revenues for
2001, I promise, he assured all who questioned how this great beast of a
company could grow its cash flow at 30 percent in the midst of the biggest
media recession in over 10 years.
His C.F.O., brash, forceful Mr. Kelly, echoed the same mantra.
But even before Sept. 11, it had become clear that AOL, with its maturing 32
million–strong subscriber base, just couldn’t grow as fast as it once did.
Growth was leveling off and advertising was down. Like General Electric,
Wal-Mart and other great American companies, AOL was not immune to a recession,
contrary to Mr. Pittman’s assertions. When the company announced its
third-quarter results on Oct. 17, it became more evident that the growth trend
was downward. There would be no $40 billion in revenues and no 30 percent
growth in cash flow. At $37, the stock is well off its 52-week high of $58.
“This is a company that historically has had a grand notion of
its growth rate,” said Doug Kass, a hedge-fund investor who’s been an active
and vocal short seller of the stock. “Levin recognizes now that there is still
a pre-bubble mindset amongst AOL executives, and what he is trying to do is
graciously bring expectations in line with a post-bubble world.” Not that Mr.
Pittman’s position within the company is in jeopardy-his infighting skills
remain strong. For example, while Mr. Britt, the new cable C.E.O., may be a
Levin guy, Thomas Baxter, formerly of the cable company Comcast, and John
Billock, from HBO, are Bob Pittman men. With Mr. Case having removed himself
from any day-to-day operating responsibility, Mr. Pittman remains the most
senior and powerful of the AOL executives-responsible for over 70 percent of
the firm’s cash flow.
Beneath him are a series of hard-charging fortysomething deal
makers: David Colburn, head of business development, an entertainment lawyer
responsible for AOL’s banner-ad deals; Ken Lerer, in charge of communications,
formerly a New York magazine writer
and AOL’s primary P.R. consultant; Barry Shuler, C.E.O. of AOL and the online
These four men, together with Mr. Case, made AOL what it is
today, and in the woozy days of the merger in January 2000, they not only
landed the peachiest of positions, they came to symbolize the young,
aggressive, deal-driven ethos that had allowed AOL shareholders to assume a 55
percent majority stake in the company. Throughout much of this year, however,
all have been big sellers of AOL Time Warner stock. Mr. Colburn has sold
roughly $8 million; Mr. Lerer, about $20 million; Mr. Pittman, some $55
million. Mr. Kelly has sold almost $15 million and Mr. Case, almost $120
million. And the selling could well pick up in January, when the last batch of
pre-merger AOL options vest.
Mr. Levin, on the other hand, has sold not a share during the
same period. Indeed, outside of charity
and tax purposes, Mr. Levin has sold hardly any stock at all during his time as
C.E.O.-a fact that, with his tortoise-like, take-the-long-view perspective,
distinguishes him from his AOL co-workers, as well as from the Street as a
whole. Let the kids sell out; now is the time for gravitas and grown-ups, men
whose riches span decades, who can give ease and comfort to a board of
Which is why many AOL Time
Warner–ologists say the grip that Mr. Levin, along with the 53-year-old
Mr. Parsons, has on the company’s reins is getting tighter by the day. “Pittman
is a great guy and a great manager, but when it comes down to it, his job is ad
sales,” says one banker. “The guys who are really running the business now are
Parsons and Jerry.”