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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 February 2005, 23:05 GMT
Has Time Warner turned the corner?
By Irene Hell
in New York

Richard Parsons - Picture: Irene Hell
Richard Parsons is the sole survivor of a difficult merger

Has Richard Parsons, chairman and chief executive of Time Warner, managed to answer the company's many critics?

Two years ago, the company was the subject of a torrent of abuse from shareholders, who argued that the AOL-Time Warner merger had been a grandiose waste of their money.

But now AOL, its long-troubled internet division, has managed a spectacular turnaround, and is expected to generate about $1bn in free cash flow this year alone.

Meanwhile, the Lord of the Rings trilogy has conjured Time Warner $2.9bn at the box office, and a further $2.1bn through sales of merchandise, DVDs and video.

Besting Bill

Mr Parsons is turning out to be something of a conjurer himself.

When Microsoft boss Bill Gates was cutting up rough over internet browsers (Netscape is part of the Time Warner empire), Mr Parsons persuaded him to settle the dispute with a $750m payment to Time Warner.

"I don't take credit for that; Bill is a smart guy," Mr Parsons says.

Tall, bearded and charming, Richard Parsons has little changed since he last spoke to BBC News, shortly after he became chief executive - although his eyes show a certain weariness.

Taking the heat

And a little weariness would be understandable.

The masterminds behind the merger, Gerald Levin and AOL founder Steve Chase, have long gone and today Mr Parsons is the only senior executive who survived what was described as "the biggest deal in history".

Time Warner shares

"Yes, we took a lot of heat. I guess we were the company everybody liked to kick around for about a year and a half," says Mr Parsons.

"We were in the papers every day."

In summer 2002 the situation was critical: Mr Parsons managed to calm the creditors, pulled a few strings and arranged a vital $10bn loan to shore up the company.

But as the internet bubble continued to deflate, advertising revenue plummeted.

The US stock market watchdog began an investigation of accounting practices at AOL, and the scandal triggered a second collapse of Time Warner's share price.

Then new regulations forced a $100bn write-off - a loss larger than the firm's total stock market value at the time.

Aftermath of war

So how did Mr Parsons save this corporate Titanic from sinking?

"This was not as monumental a task as everybody thinks," says Mr Parsons.

"We put a new management team on the bridge, sold our music business as well as other non strategic assets to strengthen our balance sheet, and we focused on turning around AOL."

As Mr Parsons describes it, it all sounds easy. But he does not like to talk much about the bloody civil war that caused the crisis - between the executives from new media AOL and old media Time Warner.

"My priority is on the people", explains Mr Parsons. "Right after I became [chief executive] we embarked on a listening tour. We went around the world, met staff and we listened."

'Underpromise, overdeliver'

He chopped the AOL name off Time Warner, and with it most of AOL's management and hype.

Steve Case and Gerald Levin
Mr Case (left) and Mr Levin have long since departed

"Underpromise, overdeliver" became the Time Warner mantra.

Time Warner is delivering healthy billion-dollar profits again; debt has been cut almost by half to just under $17bn.

The share price has doubled from its all-time lows hit in 2002 (although remains way off the heady peaks seen five years ago).

The AOL charges are about to be settled, by paying $510m to the US Justice Department and the SEC.

Now Mr Parsons boasts that the sky is the limit: "We have the best-in-class brands: Warner Bros, CNN, Time, People, Fortune and AOL.

"Our businesses, especially the cable business, are growing. So the prospects long-term are quite good... and we'll have a lot of fun in the process."

Despite this, Mr Parson says that he hates the hype of the media business.

"I am quietly competitive," he says. "It is an advantage to be underestimated."

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