Steve Case's specialty is giving the people what they want. He gave them online access before they knew they wanted it, and in a format they could understand. He gave America Online shareholders the brilliantly defensive takeover of media and entertainment giant Time-Warner precisely at a time the stock market was about to fall out of love with the Internet.
But in a ballyhooed keynote speech for the conclusion of the main session of the annual JPMorgan H&Q Technology Conference Thursday afternoon, the best Case could muster was an affirmation that AOL Time Warner ( AOL), the media and technology conglomerate he now chairs, will "make the numbers" and continue to dream up new ways to play nice within its organization as a means toward winning outside the organization. In a platitudinous 30-minute sprint of a speech that redefined the 60,000-foot-approach to oratory, Case hit notes that were blatantly obvious, surprisingly politically correct and touchingly tender. The bottom line, suggested Case, is that because AOL Time Warner is built on the foundation of tremendous achievement and is peopled by some 90,000 caring souls (otherwise known as stock-option-toting employees), the future is bright for the world's leading media concern. His purported topic was convergence -- of technologies, devices, media and cultures. But Case's true purpose was a sentimental homage to those who've come before him at AOL Time Warner, and, poignantly, to his older brother, Daniel H. Case III, the ailing chairman of JPMorgan H&Q. The noted and the praised included Jack Warner (popularizer of the talkies), Henry Luce (popularizer of the news and photo-journalism magazines), Gerry Levin (the pioneer of Home Box Office and AOL's CEO) and Ted Turner (founder of AOL's CNN). Never mind that Turner has been spending his free time whining about being maltreated by AOL or that New York media circles are placing bets on how long it takes Case and AOL Time Warner President Bob Pittman to outsmart Levin, Case's AOL Time Warner is a company that makes serving the "public interest" one of its foremost goals. "Of course we want to make our numbers," Case said, "And we will make our numbers" -- the projected $40 billion of revenue and $11 billion in operating cash flow for 2001 -- "but we also want to make a difference." There was a whiff of substance to Case's address that gave investors a sense of where AOL Time Warner is moving. He noted that currently AOL Time Warner collects only 17% of its revenue outside the U.S. and that its entire board of directors and senior management team is American. Within 10 years, 50% of revenue should come from abroad, he said, as the company seeks to build a truly global organization. He said the company aims to have an "integrative" approach to melding its cultures beyond simply "mushing" the legacy cultures together. Interestingly, Case said a collection of fiefdoms like a movie studio and a music department made sense in the 1990s. In this century, technology demands that everyone work together. This will provide a useful point of comparison when the inevitable internecine strife in the company breaks into the open. In a speech attended by early AOL backer John Doerr and the entire JPMorgan H&Q management team, Case made a commitment to keeping the best people and welcomed back to CNN Lou Dobbs, whose start date, May 14, Case knows off the top of his head. AOL Time Warner also will need to enhance its reputation among competitors and governments around the world, he said. It struck a remarkably collegial tone for the chairman of a company known for its hardball tactics. There also was thanks for his big brother and first business partner who underwent surgery several weeks ago for a malignant brain tumor but who appeared remarkably robust in introducing the chairman of AOL. Upper Case (Dan) and Lower Case (Steve) hugged briefly before and after the keynote address. There's no denying the tremendous accomplishments of the embracing brothers, one a pioneering entrepreneur and the other an investment banker who helped finance what became Silicon Valley. What the people want right now is stability, strength and vision. Steve Case gave them that Thursday. And not much more.