NEW YORK – Steve Case was hailed as a visionary when his company, America Online, acquired Time Warner nearly two years ago. Now, that luster is fading, tarnished by a severely battered stock price, accounting scandals and slumping business, all of which have fed concerns that the merger was a mistake.
Some of AOL Time Warner's (AOL) biggest shareholders and several board members reportedly have expressed dissatisfaction with his leadership. But Case, who co-founded online service provider America Online in 1985, is unlikely to depart anytime soon.
The chairman has shown no inclination to leave, and still has the strong support of the company's board of directors, according to a statement issued Thursday following a regularly scheduled board meeting.
"As we repeatedly have said, Steve Case is the company's chairman and he will remain so," spokeswoman Tricia Primrose said.
Still, the speculation raises questions about the future of America Online's role at the company.
Although the AOL Time Warner merger was promoted as an example of a new economy business reviving an old one, the influence of America Online on the company is waning. Many of the key architects of the merger have left, been forced out or been demoted in the last year as investors have grown increasingly dissatisfied.
Jerry Levin, the Time Warner chief executive at the time of the merger, retired in May, just a year and a half after the merger was finalized. Bob Pittman, an America Online veteran, resigned as chief operating officer in July. Barry Schuler lost his job as America Online chief executive in April and was reassigned to a lower-profile position.
It's clear America Online is no longer the flagship division of the company. The division's new head, Jonathan Miller, reports to Don Logan, chairman of the media and communications group, rather than chief executive Richard Parsons.
There has even been talk of dropping the "AOL" in the company's name and reverting back to "Time Warner."
"It is being treated as just one of the many units the company has," said Youssef H. Squali, an analyst with First Albany.
The status reflects fears that the pre-merger promises of lofty profits at America Online may never materialize, amid tumbling advertising revenues and a soft business environment. There are growing questions about the feasibility about the division's business model, which relies heavily on ad revenues and the implementation of high-speed access to attract new customers.
Investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department into the division's bookkeeping practices have given investors even more reasons to stay away.
The resulting malaise is weighing on the entire company, even though many analysts like what they see at AOL Time Warner's other assets, which include Home Box Office, Time Inc. and Warner Brothers.
The stock dipped below $10 per share this summer after trading above $50 just a year ago. In trading Thursday, it closed down 56 cents, or 4.4 percent, at $12.27 per share on the New York Stock Exchange.
"Despite our view that the majority of Time Warner's businesses are performing at the top end of their respective industry groups, we maintain our neutral rating on AOL Time Warner given the uncertainties of both the DoJ/SEC investigations as well as poor visibility in the AOL segment," Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen wrote in a Sept. 18 research note. Cohen also reduced her earnings estimates on the stock.
Case's culpability in the AOL division's specific problems is debatable. In recent years, he has assumed more of a strategic role for the broader company, with less focus on day-to-day operations and minimal direct involvement at America Online.
Most analysts agree that his departure would do little to solve AOL Time Warner's problems.
"People aren't going to buy the stock because he stays or goes. They'll buy it if they think it's cheap and going to go higher," Squali said.
Still, a Case departure could be interpreted as an admission of failure.
"It is an uncomfortable situation for a chairman to have such a high level of dissension around him," said Paul Kim, media analyst with Kaufman Brothers. "If you're a shareholder, you probably want heads to roll, and most people responsible for this transaction have been kicked out, except for Steve Case."
Katherine Styponias, an analyst at Prudential Securities, cautioned against writing off the AOL Time Warner merger prematurely.
"It's easy to look back in hindsight to say things are a mistake," she said. "The truth is we won't know for several years if this has worked."