AOL's top wonk becomes emperor

Time Warner deal elevates Va. man with social conscience

Case `most outspoken'

January 11, 2000|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

When Steve Case was in college during the late 1970s, one thing was clear: He was a big thinker.

Yesterday, he pulled off the biggest business deal in history. Case's America Online Inc. announced that it is buying Time Warner Inc. in a deal valued at $179.1 billion in stock and assumed debt.

"He was thoughtful and concerned about society and ethical issues," recalled Mark C. Taylor, a humanities professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, who had Case as a student in his religion course. "He had a sense of the world beyond his limited community."

Taylor said Case didn't just have a passing interest in social and ethical questions, "he was actually concerned."

And there will be plenty to concern him when the two powerhouses join to form AOL Time Warner Inc., which Case will lead. Time Warner, owner of Warner Bros., the CNN network, Time and People magazines, is one of the principal companies that dictates what type of media people can access.

Taylor ran into his former student at an investment conference run by Herbert Allen in Sun Valley, Idaho, this past summer. Case was on a panel that discussed violence in the media.

"Steve was the most outspoken critical voice on the panel about the problem and the urgency for the media industry in taking a more aggressive leadership role in addressing that," Taylor said. "As these technologies develop and become ever more pervasive, we are fortunate to have people with Steve Case's values in leadership positions. He's a good person."

After Case, who was born in Honolulu in 1958, graduated from Williams with a bachelor's in political science in 1980, he worked in the marketing sector of Procter & Gamble, then managed the development of pizzas for the Pizza Hut unit of PepsiCo. He then went to Control Video, a video-game start-up. In 1985 the company was renamed Quantum Computer Services and changed its focus to online services.

Four years later, Case, as executive vice president, changed the company's name to America Online. He became president of the company two years later, chief executive in 1993 and chairman in 1995. AOL had amassed more than 19 million members by 1999. The service delivers more mail, albeit electronic mail, than the U.S. Postal Service. At peak times, more people are logged on to AOL than to the top cable TV networks.

Daniel H. Case III, Steve Case's older brother and chief executive of the investment firm, CHASE H&Q, said yesterday that when the two were young he never envisioned his brother as head of a multibillion-dollar company.

"We didn't know what that was or whether that was important," he said. But now, his brother is "a tremendous visionary and creative thinker who is unencumbered by what can't be done, and is quite capable of focusing on what can be done and seeing it and implementing it ahead of others," he said. "That was a trait that he had early and he's of course refined tremendously well."

Donald W. Upson, Virginia's secretary of technology, said he enjoys meeting with Case. "It would be a pleasure to work for him -- he's the nicest guy you'll ever meet, very bright."

Case is a member of the Commission on Information Technology, which helps Virginia wrestle with such issues as computers in schools and Internet privacy protection.

"I've never seen him in a suit, he wears khakis and short-sleeved button-down shirts," Upson said. "What I like about Steve Case is that he knows what he doesn't know. AOL does not come out with real quick or fast positions on anything. -- But by the time we get something, it's well thought out and well reasoned."

His attire may be casual, his office in Dulles, Va., modest, but the contents of Case's AOL personal home page indicate he is nearly all business. Of 17 links on his "favorites" page, only three -- a volunteer site, a concert hot line and CBS SportsLine -- are not business-related.

That Case would emerge as such a powerful business leader surprises no one in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, where AOL's spectacular growth has vastly enriched the community.

Here, Case is widely regarded as a visionary who helped transform green pastures into seas of shiny Mercedes.

"Anybody who has known him over the last five years would not find this [merger] stunning," said Jerry Gordon, president of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.

Barry Duval, secretary of commerce and trade for Virginia, said people who have worked on economic development projects with Case believe that he represents "a new generation of corporate leadership" destined to define the information age.

Case has the "ability to create a vision and follow it through," Duval said.

Perhaps Case's most crucial move came when he pushed for mass mailings of 3.5-inch AOL disks, providing would-be subscribers with quick access to the online service.

He insisted that the company focus on simplicity and ease of use, making AOL seem friendly and useful to the average customer who did not have an advanced degree in computer engineering.

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