- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

NEW YORK (Cox News Service) Richard Parsons' honeymoon ended before it began yesterday. At AOL Time Warner Inc.'s annual meeting, the new chief executive found himself the target of a barrage of complaints from disappointed shareholders.

An angry crowd lobbed a long list of concerns at Mr. Parsons just moments after he bid farewell to outgoing CEO Gerald Levin, his long-time mentor.

They included outrage over poor customer service, the planned "Taj Mahal" headquarters building, even dim lighting in the historic Apollo Theatre in Harlem where the meeting was held.

But mostly, shareholders demanded specific answers from Mr. Parsons about why the stock has plunged more than 60 percent since the merger of AOL and Time Warner in January 2001, and what he planned to do about it.

AOL shares closed yesterday at $18.90, up slightly for the day but far below the $73.75 a share on the day before the merger announcement Jan. 10, 2000.

"I've lost a lot of money on this company, and I want someone to say something that will give me some confidence again," said Gloria Foster, an employee of AOL Time Warner-owned Atlantic Records for 20 years.

"Time Warner was doing fine by itself, so maybe the answer is to split them up again," she suggested.

Another angry shareholder blasted Chairman Steve Case, founder of AOL, for becoming too much of an executive and loudly urged him to "get back into the trenches again so that you can fix this mess."

Another said poor customer service was no way to attract new subscribers.

Ironically, one of the few shareholders with good things to say was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, better known as a critic of major corporations.

"This is one of America's finest hours and I think you're equal to this task," he told Mr. Parsons, praising the naming of an African American to the helm of the world's largest media company.

Recalling Enron Corp.'s troubles, he also complimented company officials for not "embarrassing us with a corruption."

Indeed, in an industry of rich egos, it was a humbled set of executives who addressed the standing-room-only crowd.

"This past year has been difficult and didn't go quite the way we planned," said Mr. Case, who added that he intends to be a more visible presence at the company this year. "We will have to work to gain your confidence."

He said the company had made some mistakes this past year, including "setting profit expectations too high and, in hindsight, staying with them too long."

It's unlikely Mr. Parsons was expecting praise after the company last month had to write off about $54 billion in assets while announcing AOL Time Warner's first-quarter results.

Mr. Parsons, a soft-spoken former lawyer often praised for his people skills, worked hard to charm the audience.

He made shareholders laugh when, before speaking, he rubbed the Apollo's legendary good-luck tree stump.

He shook hands with shareholders as they entered the theater, and stayed after the meeting to answer their questions.

Mr. Parsons blamed much of the company's stock troubles on the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the downturn in the advertising market, and lingering questions over AOL's ability to dominate the arena of high-speed Internet access arena the way it has the dial-up one.

But he expressed confidence that AOL, under the leadership of Chief Operating Officer Robert Pittman, would again become a "growth engine" for the company.

Mr. Parsons said he's in "very active discussions" with virtually every major cable TV company to make AOL's high-speed Internet service available on systems other than Time Warner Cable's.

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