Business World

Friday 22 November 2019

Ex-Time Warner boss apologises for 'worst deal of the century'

Jerry Levin encourages banking chiefs to follow his lead after admitting AOL blunder

Stephen Foley in New York

The bar just got higher for chief executive mea culpas. Jerry Levin, the former boss of Time Warner, whose acquisition of AOL at the peak of the euphoria was dubbed "the largest mid-life crisis in the history of American capitalism", launched into a 10-minute apology for that era- defining deal – which wiped out billions of dollars of shareholder value and led to thousands of job losses.

And he threw down the gauntlet to the latest generation of empire-building CEOs, whose overreaching ambitions contributed to the near-collapse of the financial system, the need for vast government bailouts, and economic pain across the world. Stand up, he told them. Stand up and take responsibility.

"I'm really very sorry about the pain and suffering and loss caused," Mr Levin told CNBC television.

"I take responsibility. It wasn't the board. It wasn't my colleagues at Time Warner. It wasn't the bankers or the lawyers – and there were a lot of them... I am not going to blame any predecessors or successors. I helped pick them and I have great respect for them," he said.

"I presided over the worst deal of the century, apparently, and it is time for those involved in companies to stand up and say, 'You know what, I am solely responsible for it, I was the CEO, I was in charge'."

The $350bn combination of Time Warner and AOL was breathtaking, even at the time it was announced in 2000. AOL, or America Online, had shot to prominence by, in effect, putting America online through dial-up internet subscriptions.

The merger bolted it on to an august conglomerate whose historic brands ranged from Time magazine and CNN to Warner Brothers movies.

While the vision behind the deal – that the internet would change the way media content was created and delivered – has proved spot on, the company itself never managed to capitalise.

Time Warner bought AOL at a time when its valuation was hopelessly inflated, and internet users anyway quickly began deserting to rivals. A shadow of its former self, AOL was finally separated out again last year.

Mr Levin's full-throated apology breaks the mould of corporate mea culpas, which traditionally come as an attempt to save one's job or at least salvage one's reputation – often when senior executives are faced with hostile shareholder meetings or parliamentary inquisitions.

The 70-year old former Time Warner boss, though, is far beyond such things, and decided voluntarily to appear on the business channel. These days he and his wife run Moonview Sanctuary, a rehabilitation clinic for drug and sex addicts in Santa Monica, which combines Western medicine with Eastern philosophy and yoga.

On CNBC, Mr Levin appeared riled by a recent newspaper interview given by Sandy Weill, the man who turned Citigroup into the largest US bank and then left in 2006, just before losses from sub-prime mortgage bets began to roll in, eventually leading to a double bailout by the US taxpayer.

In the interview, an angry Mr Weill had defended his record and said one of his biggest mistakes had been "recommending Chuck Prince" to be his successor.

"Maybe you can say in my case it is a little late," Mr Levin said, "but I have had a chance to reflect on it and to think about what is needed today; and that is more of a concern about public interest as well as delivering for shareholders.

"Let's hear publicly from Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch – on and on. I'm not trying to be defensive, I just think it's important. The government is basically running our companies today. Where is the stand-up leadership that takes responsibility for what's happened, and does something about it?"

The hardest word? Bankers' apologies

* Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs chief executive: "We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret. We apologise."

* Lord Stevenson, ex-chairman of HBOS: "We are profoundly and, I think we would say, unreservedly sorry for the turn of events. We are sorry about the effects it has had on the communities we serve."

* Dick Fuld, former Lehman Brothers chief executive: "I wake up every single night thinking, what could I have done differently? This is a pain that will stay with me."

* Sir Fred Goodwin, former Royal Bank of Scotland CEO: "I could not be more sorry. It is very simple to blame it all on me and close the book. But it is more complex."

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