Steve Case, the former AOL Chairman, looks thin and fresh as he takes the podium. He’s here in Stanford’s Hewlett hall, taking a photo of the audience before launching into his speech. “You don’t look so great as a group,” he cracks.
Case is the co-architect of the biggest merger in history, the infamous AOL-Time Warner deal, which Vanity Fair journalist Nina Munk described in detail in her 2004 book, aptly titled “Fools Rush in.” The merger was a failure, with both part of the new company ignoring the other one, and posting a loss of $99 billion in 2002 - still the all-time record for a company. Former Time Warner Inc. CEO Gerald Levin recently apologized for the merger, calling it “the worst business deal ever.”
“We seem to be lacking entrepreneurship today. Old companies always play defense, and we need the new guys to play offense,” declares Steve Case at one point. The remark might have had more to do with soccer than football - his daughter Annie, a Stanford freshman, plays defense for the women’s soccer team. “She’s here somewhere, but I won’t embarrass her by asking to stand up,” says Case.
That one sentence seems to sum up Case’s explanation for why the merger failed. For him, Time Warner was the big, old company, playing defense, while AOL was the aggressive newcomer. “Vision without execution is hallucination,” he says at one point, “and we should all accept responsibility for not making it work.”
After being ousted as the Chairman of AOL Time Warner Inc. in 2003 - right before the company went back to its old name, “Time Warner Inc.” - Case focused on his non-profit, Case Foundation, which helps fund and promote new projects “that can change the world.”
“It feels like my early days - I’m in a garage, working on projects I like,” says Case as he concludes the speech.