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July 2003, Vol. 28 No. 2
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Media magician Dick Parsons

by Tom Nugent
Richard Parsons with UHManoa nursing graduates

Ask AOL Time Warner Chairman and CEO Richard Dean Parsons to reflect on the enormous challenge his company now faces, and the former University of Hawai‘i history major (’64–’68 Manoa) will surprise you with his exuberant optimism. “I’ve always thought Americans have this marvelous knack for finding their way through any situation, and that’s the attitude I’m taking on this job,” says the easygoing, affable leader of the world’s largest media and entertainment corporation. "Over the years, I’ve learned that the best way to handle any task is simply to plunge right in.

“You start by putting one foot in front of the other, that’s all. Obviously, we face some very real challenges at AOL Time Warner, and all of us are going to be tested in the months ahead. Are we up to it? You bet! This is a great, great company, and I love coming to work every morning.”

"We’re going to have some fun"

Parsons learned how to keep his cool in tough situations — like serving as a top White House aide in the messy 1970s aftermath of Watergate. Rebuilding the fortunes of a mega-media empire that had the largest write down in the history of American business—an astounding $99 billion last year—doesn’t even faze him. “We’ve got our share of problems, like most other media companies today. But we’ve also got some terrific people working for us and the best brands in the media and entertainment industry. We’re making and distributing some of the most popular entertainment fare in the world today. HBO is doing extremely well for us, and our magazines—People, Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune and all the rest—are also at the top of their game. As for news … I don’t think anyone would deny that CNN now ranks as the authoritative voice in global news. These are all huge strengths, and many media companies would love to have just one of them.”

“There’s no denying that we’ve got some problems at AOL [America Online, the giant Internet company that merged with Time Warner in 2000 in a $300-billion deal], and we will face some significant challenges there in the days ahead. On the other hand, AOL also has some powerful assets going for it—resources that many people tend to overlook, starting with the fact that this is the world’s leading Internet brand, with more than 35 million subscribers around the globe.

“We’re going to turn the company around and get it back into safe, deep water. I’m convinced that we’ll accomplish that goal, because we’ve got great employees to help get the job done. And we’re also going to have some fun while we’re doing it!”

East meets West … in a “paradise on earth"

Described by colleagues as “the most decisive, capable executive working in entertainment media today,” Dick Parsons has spent most of his professional life fighting—and usually winning—uphill battles. Born in the economically disadvantaged Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in 1948 and raised in rough-and-tumble Jamaica, Queens, Parsons was a bright kid with a gift for charming people by telling entertaining stories. He skipped two grades in school and leap-frogged into the University of Hawai‘i at age of 16, a brash, 6-foot-4 wunderkind who won a walk-on scholarship to play for the Rainbow Warriors basketball team.

“I grew up on that campus,” recalls Parsons, "and it was a gorgeous place to go to college. After Brooklyn, Hawai‘i was paradise on earth. The people were friendly and the weather was always accommodating. As an African-American, I was struck by the ethnic diversity I saw all around me. At Hawai‘i, we studied and socialized among all the different shapes, sizes, religions and races of the world. It was East meets West, and it was a terrific place to begin discovering how other people think. I learned a lot of lessons there about how to interact with people of different backgrounds, and those lessons would stand me in good stead during my later career as a manager. You can’t motivate or inspire employees—and we have 90,000 employees at AOL Time Warner—if you don’t understand where they’re coming from and how they think.”

Richard Parsons

Parsons spent a lot of time reading about the roots of American democracy in his U.S. history courses. "I can remember the excitement I felt the first time I read Alexis de Tocqueville. He made it so clear that what’s unique about the ‘American experiment’ is the way ordinary citizens insist on being involved at every level of our society, both in and out of government. That’s a lesson I’ve carried into a lot of my volunteer work, whether it’s with civic organizations or school kids or as part of President Bush’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security. What de Tocqueville taught me was that this kind of civic activism isn’t really goodness-of-the-heart stuff. It’s an essential part of what makes America America!"

Don’t bet against Dick

Parsons headed to law school, accompanied by his brand-new wife, Laura Bush Parsons (BA ’68 Manoa), whom he now credits with “teaching me how to get serious—about my career, my life, the goals I should set for myself.” After ranking first in his class at Union University’s Albany Law School in 1971, Parsons became a legal assistant to then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Within a few years, Vice President Rockefeller asked him to move his growing family (soon to include three children) to Washington, where he would serve as a senior White House aide under President Gerald Ford. Parsons invented and deployed several successful strategies aimed at restoring public confidence in the badly damaged executive branch of government in the wake of Richard Nixon’s scandal-tainted exile.

The now experienced and politically savvy Parsons joined the blue-chip New York law firm Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, where he soon rose to managing partner and built a reputation as a can-do problem-solver. In 1988, directors of the huge but deeply troubled Dime Savings Bank of New York decided Parsons had the management skills and coolness under fire to rescue their failing financial institution from impending collapse. Parsons staved off the fiscal crisis at Dime, then masterminded a complicated merger with Anchor Savings Bank. A merger created a $20-billion financial institution with impeccable credentials.

The same kind of rescue is now required at AOL Time Warner, where he became president in 1995 and took the reins as CEO and chairman in May 2003. The question on everyone’s mind is: Can Dick Parsons do it again? Movers and shakers at some of America’s biggest media corporations answer the same way: Don’t bet against Richard Parsons. “Dick is simply the best there is at running complex, heavily populated organizations like AOLTW,” says Leo Hindery, Jr., veteran CEO at YES Network, an entertainment and sports group operated by the New York Yankees. "This guy is a persuader, not a dictator, and he has a fabulous track record when it comes to turning situations around.

Make money, do good, have fun

“He’s a bear of a guy, yet he’s surprisingly gentle and sensitive to other people’s needs," Hindery continues. “Parsons is a terrific manager because he understands the people who work for him. He knows how to get the most out of them without leaving ruffled feathers behind.”

Adds Richard J. Bressler, chief financial officer at media giant Viacom who held the same post at Time Warner for several years under Parsons, “What you have to understand about Dick is that he’s the consummate diplomat. At Time Warner, he was always able to bring people together as a way to harmonize the company, and that’s what the company needs most right now.”

Unpretentious and low-key, Parsons prefers Miller Genuine Draft beer and keeps a jumbo-sized sculpture of Tweety Bird in his office. Asked to reflect on his philosophy of management, he’ll likely respond with a self-deprecating guffaw. “Look, our goal at AOL Time Warner is actually pretty simple. We want to make some money for the shareholders, we want to do some good in the world, and we want to have some fun. The key to that is our people. You can have the clearest vision, the best strategy and the best execution, but if your people don’t feel rewarded and psyched, it’s all for naught.”

Tom Nugent is a freelance writer and former People magazine reporter