Citizen Case Keeps His Cool

It was reported earlier this week that America Online CEO Steve Case has been engaged in serious alliance talks with AT&T.

Case told reporters that AOL and AT&T could work together in various ways — although he quite characteristically declined to be specific. This news should come as a bombshell to many observers, considering the fact that AOL agreed to buy Time Warner, Inc. in January for $153 billion (US$). One might think that Time Warner’s content and broadband cable assets would be enough for Case, but we have seen that all bets are off when it comes to America Online.

For years, many industry analysts were made to look foolish as AOL obliterated the competition and built an empire of 20 million subscribers despite doomsday predictions about the ultimate demise of the online service.

Cooler Heads Prevail?

What was the factor that kept AOL afloat, even when all seemed lost? The simple answer is Case’s cool demeanor.

If there is one thing about Case that sets him apart from many of his peers, it is his steady, unemotional leadership style. This calmness could be one reason why so many of his rivals have underestimated him and his company in the past.

Personally, I cannot recall ever seeing Case lose his temper. Compare that record to that of Microsoft Chairman and international bully-boy Bill Gates.

One only had to witness Case’s cool, measured testimony at last week’s U.S. Senate hearings to understand what I mean. The members of the Senate Commerce Committee grilled him on a variety of issues, ranging from online privacy to opening chat services to competitors.

Case never once lost his composure and constantly offered his harshest critics a heavy dose of his boyish smile. Case even went so far as to pledge that the proposed AOL Time Warner would open its cable lines to rival online services.

The Big Picture

“Just as Apple Computer learned when they controlled things too tightly with the Mac in the 1980s, they missed a broader opportunity,” Case reportedly told Bloomberg. “Other cable companies want to get on the bandwagon, and so do other ISPs.”

America Online and AT&T could also be discussing a joint marketing agreement that would extend an existing alliance between Time Warner and the largest U.S. long-distance telephone company. Time Warner and AT&T will jointly sell their services to Time Warner’s 600,000 cable television customers in Syracuse and Albany, New York.

As always, Case seems to be taking care of business by focusing on the big picture and not letting personalities get in the way.

Still, one has to wonder. Will Case be able to maintain his composure as AOL’s merger with Time Warner painstakingly maneuvers itself through the tedious, bureaucratic and political obstacle course that lies ahead? The smart money says he will.

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