Pressure to close ad deals was particularly intense during much of 2000, when the company sought to complete its merger with Time Warner, the sources said.
"It was definitely part of everyday life. It was definitely out there," said Jonathan Salkoff, who served as a manager in business affairs and declined to discuss specific company matters. He was laid off in January 2001, just after the merger was approved.
David Colburn was chief of the AOL unit that put together deals that are under investigation by the SEC and Justice Dept.
(Courtesy Chai Lifeline)
After completing the Time Warner takeover, AOL sources said they continued to feel pressure to close deals. It was, they said, part of business affair's culture -- an unrelenting need to win.
The Good Times
When AOL announced its blockbuster takeover of Time Warner in January 2000, business affairs was at full throttle.
Start-ups lined up to strike a deal with AOL, a blue-chip Internet firm in a sea of untested wannabes searching for an IPO, the initial public offerings of stock that had already created mind-boggling personal wealth for many denizens of Silicon Valley.
The transactions, in turn, helped enrich AOL. Everyone, it seemed, was becoming an instant millionaire at the company's Dulles headquarters. There were a lot of Ferraris. And twentysomethings and secretaries retiring with seven-figure bank accounts after a few years on the job, thanks to the incredible windfall from stock options.
At business affairs, almost anything seemed possible. Hard work begot wealth. Wealth begot parties. And parties, on occasion, became part of work.
That included a spontaneous excursion from Dulles to San Francisco by a handful of AOL officials on the corporate jet. They called it a "team-building trip."
It took place in the Gold Club topless bar on Howard Street, said sources who were present, and both men and women from AOL attended.
"The lavish parties, the crazy antics -- it really socialized you," said another AOL source. "You had to toe the line."
AOL declined to comment on such conduct, other than to say it does not condone activities that would be in violation of company policies.
The tone for the company's culture back in the heyday of 2000 was set by Colburn, then head of business affairs.
Colburn, now executive vice president and president of business affairs and development for AOL Time Warner's subscription services and its advertising and commerce businesses, was a larger-than-life figure.
A lawyer, former venture capitalist and former chief executive of a poster company, Colburn is athletic but carries a paunch. He is charismatic and rough-hewn. Tall and imposing, he speaks in a high-pitched, nasal tone.
By many accounts, Colburn also commanded respect as a brilliant corporate strategist, a smart lawyer who remembered every detail and was always thinking 10 steps ahead in every negotiation.
He burnished his imposing reputation on Sundays at 9 a.m. on the regulation basketball court outside his large, clapboard and stone country-style house in Potomac.
There, he gathered his loyalists -- a group of deal makers who wanted to move up the corporate ladder. Attendance was de rigueur. What he taught his disciples was his way of playing sports -- and doing business. He played a ferocious game, breaking down his opponents with rough elbows, blatant fouls and name-calling, attendees said.