graphic
News > Deals
Case, Levin: an odd couple
January 11, 2001: 7:58 p.m. ET

Button-down meets tech savvy as new leaders of digital media age
By Staff Writer Tom Johnson
graphic
graphic graphic
graphic
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Twelve months ago, Steve Case and Gerald Levin stood on a New York stage and rattled Wall Street and Corporate America alike with word that they intended to create the dominant force of the digital media age.

As they took turns at the podium announcing the blockbuster merger between America Online and Time Warner Inc., both stressed how quickly the deal had come together, hoping to foreshadow the seamless working relationship they expected in the coming days and years.

(To accentuate the point, Case donned the button-down shirt-and-tie look that dominated Time Warner's corporate culture while Levin opted for the more Web-savvy, open-collared look.) graphic

Yet despite all their attempts at bravado, the two remain in the eyes of many an odd match at best, raising some questions about their ability to collaborate and mesh the two massive organizations.

"This [type of transaction] has never been done before," said Robert Lamb, a professor of management at New York University's Stern School of Business and author of "Capitalizing on Merger Chaos."

"The deal was struck between the two CEOs and in both cases it was sort of a marriage of necessity," Lamb said. "But there is no conviction in my soul that Levin understands the Internet age, and unless Case is given the collaboration from Levin to lead into the future, it could drag down the opportunities into the future."

But while the two executives are clearly a study in contrasts, Wall Street, for one, appears to be comfortable with the two men's ability to effectively work together.

"It's a non-story," said Christopher Dixon, an analyst with UBS Warburg and one of Wall Street's most respected media industry watchers. "Steve is a big picture thinker and Jerry is a detailed guy and they are both very, very intelligent. There is every expectation that they are going to be able to work very well together."

From Pizza Hut to AOL

A graduate of tiny Williams College in Massachusetts, Case, 42, is revered for his ability to identify and capitalize on trends, even as his harshest critics are predicting his demise.

Not only did he begin developing the idea for AOL while delivering pizzas for Pizza Hut, but he helped lead his company back from the brink of disaster three years ago with a series of shrewd acquisitions that catapulted his company to the top of the Internet's elite.

The acquisition of Time Warner was Case's coup de grace, a pre-emptive strike to create the kind of digital media and entertainment powerhouse that had, to that point, primarily just been the subject of executive stump speeches and think-tank publications.

Loath to seek out the media spotlight, industry watchers say Case has adjusted to his increasingly-public profile rather nicely thus far.

Shortly after the Time Warner acquisition was announced, Case managed to at least temporarily supplant Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates as the technology industry's poster boy for success when he commanded the lion's share of the attention speaking on a panel with Gates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last winter.

  graphic  
     
  You have a personality in Case that is much more of visionary and a much more tight-fisted state of mind than Jerry Levin. Then you have a Jerry Levin who has come up through Time Inc., where they are about a rigid as you can get, and doesn't fool anybody.  
     
  graphic  
     
  Robert Lamb, a professor at New York University  


Levin, on the other hand, is a product of Haverford College, University of Pennsylvania Law School and the former Time Inc., known for its stiff corporate culture and bureaucratic ideals that some industry pundits believe could kill many a venture simply by meeting it to death.

Though hailed as a visionary who simply could not bring an end to the executive infighting underneath him at Time Warner, Levin is often typecast unfairly, according to those who know him -- as the type of deliberate, bottom-line oriented executive who likely will clash with Case's act-quick style.

"You have a personality in Case that is much more of visionary and a much more tight-fisted state of mind than Jerry Levin," Lamb said. "Then you have a Jerry Levin who has come up through Time Inc., where they are about a rigid as you can get, and doesn't fool anybody. He is a button-down, narrow kind of guy who is not able to move rapidly. Unless Case can make him sort of understand the need for speed, the need to act on opportunities that he does not yet understand, he is going to be marginalized."

The key to Case and Levin's working relationship, according to many who follow the company, will be Robert Pittman, currently AOL's president, who is poised, following the merger, to become the company's co-chief operating officer in charge of the AOL operation as well as Time Warner's cable operation and magazine businesses.

Before the transaction was even announced, Case asked Levin to run the combined operation, leaving him to handle long-term strategic issues he preferred.

The agreement gave Levin day-to-day oversight of a company that will boast a diversity of business rivaled by few others -- a heady task for any executive.

Pittman's dual citizenship

Pittman is in the unique position of having the trust of both Case and Levin, having served as Case's chief lieutenant since 1996, when he brought his showbiz style over from Time Warner, where he ran Six Flags amusement parks after having overseen the launch of MTV.

Pittman is widely hailed by executives on both sides and will report directly to Levin. Some have questioned whether Pittman's close relationship with Case might ultimately squeeze Levin out of the decision-making process, but Case has firmly stated his desire to allow Levin day-to-day control of the company, leaving him to tackle more forward-reaching concerns.

And, despite their differences, Case and Levin have shown nothing but a unified front in public and, by this point, undoubtedly feel like brothers-in-arms, given the arduous regulatory review of their proposed union on both sides of the Atlantic.

graphicIndeed, the two were hardly strangers prior to their merger discussions in the Fall of 1999. They serve together on the board of the New York Stock Exchange, where, members say, they display the same kind of camaraderie they do on more-public stages.

NYSE Chairman Richard Grasso said that while the two executives appear to be polar opposites on the surface, most people will be surprised at how well they operate together.

"I think at the surface comparative level, they appear to be wildly different," Grasso told CNNfn.com. "But there are some very comparative similarities to the makeup of each. They are extraordinary intelligent and very creative in how they approach problems."

Grasso also disputed Levin's critics, who claim he's unable to react quickly to changes in the marketplace.

"Jerry has been in the middle of some of the most interesting and challenging issues ever to face my institution," he said. "I've watched him as a public director kind of immerse himself in the issues and he's like a sponge to water in that capacity.

"Both have the speed to market mentality requisite to success." graphic

  RELATED STORIES

Time Warner cuts profit growth outlook - Dec. 18, 2000

FTC approves AOL, Time Warner merger - Dec. 14, 2000

AOL, Time Warner defend merger - Jul. 27, 2000

  RELATED SITES

America Online Inc.

Time Warner


Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNNmoney




graphic