Some hope AOL's Case becomes more visible

Billionaire founder has preferred to toil behind the scenes

January 02, 2002|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Criticized for staying behind the scenes for much of the last year, AOL Time Warner Inc. Chairman Steve Case is under pressure to stage a comeback.

Some company executives want Case - the billionaire founder of America Online - to move his full-time office from the Internet company's old headquarters in Virginia to New York, where most of the big decisions are now made.

Others hope Case will take a more visible role on Capitol Hill, lobbying legislators and regulators.

And after Chief Executive Officer Gerald M. Levin announced last month his intention to retire in the spring, company executives began referring to Case as the company's "active chairman," a subtle attempt to stress Case's growing involvement.

"The big question now is, what is Steve Case going to do?" one former executive said after Levin's retirement announcement.

"And what has he been doing?"

A year ago, when Case and Levin were marrying their companies, many pundits predicted that Case would emerge as a major force, using his Internet savvy to position the company for the future.

But after pulling off his well-timed acquisition of Time Warner, Case largely faded into the background, rarely granting interviews and seldom being seen publicly or at the company's Rockefeller Center headquarters.

"Where's Steve?" blared a recent headline in Fortune magazine, which is part of the AOL Time Warner family.

At an investment conference in November, Case was asked where he'd been "hiding."

Case, 43, declined to comment, as did other AOL Time Warner executives.

Company insiders said Case has spent much of his time over the past year in California, where his brother, investment banker Dan Case, is battling cancer.

At a recent investment conference, Case stressed that, as chairman, he is no longer responsible for making day-to-day decisions, a job he happily left to Levin and Co-Chief Operating Officers Richard Parsons and Robert Pittman.

"I'm not the six-month guy," Case said. "I'm the five-to-10-year guy."

But other than helping negotiate a strategic deal with Sony Corp. in the fall and hiring a new top lobbyist in the Washington office, Case's imprint on important decisions at AOL Time Warner has been hard to find.

Although Case has been charged with finding strategic acquisitions, it was Levin who took the lead in AOL Time Warner's failed bid to buy AT&T Corp.'s cable business, even though Case was skeptical.

AT&T said last month that it would sell its cable business to Comcast Corp.

International expansion was another of Case's goals, but it was Levin who journeyed to China in the fall to smooth the Internet unit's entry into the giant market.

And, although Case is charged with setting long-term strategy, Levin drafted the company succession plan, which selected Parsons as the next CEO, instead of Pittman, Case's former right-hand man.

Some say Case's low profile has served the company well because it allowed Levin to emerge as the undisputed leader.

Others say it will now become more difficult for Case to remain in the background.

Edmund Sanders is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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