Like so many others who rose on the cult of personality in the tech boom, Steve Case fell on it as on a stake during the bust. This week Case became the most prominent of the first generation of Internet princes to be banished as he was all but forced to step down as chairman of AOL Time Warner.
In all fairness, few of the name-brand CEOs were really as prescient as they could seem in the good times, and they are probably not quite as destructive as they appear today.
Book-cooking crooks aside, the reality lies somewhere in between. But shareholders, investment analysts and others are looking for heads, especially well-known ones, to lop off. When Case said he was a "distraction" to the troubled company, it was true. More than any other person, he has symbolized the "new economy." Trouble is, the definition of new economy has changed from fast-moving and visionary to fuzzy and unprofitable.
"There is no doubt Steve Case is synonymous with AOL," says Peter Barris, managing partner of venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates.
"Wall Street wins," Internet analyst Gary Arlen says about Case's departure, which he sees as, finally, a public admission the merger was broken. "They've hated this all along."
But those with Internet arrogance and vision -- and Case was full of both -- whose faces appeared on dozens of magazine covers, don't surrender quietly. Case joins a growing list of un- and underemployed Internet executives.
They leave for different reasons. Some worry about getting caught in accounting scandals or being blamed for bad decisions. Others cash out while they can and bide their time on yachts or in vacation homes while slowly plotting their next move. And some leave because investors and/or internal rivals force them to.
Which of these executives return from exile and what they will do will make for an interesting story to watch over the next few years. Many of them are young, and though they have enough money to never work again, they are driven by a need to succeed that got them where they were in the first place. Some even might be motivated by revenge, or a desire to prove their adversaries wrong. But will they be one-hit wonders or pioneers in the next wave of Internet business?
In the Washington area, William Schrader, former chairman and CEO of bankrupt Internet access provider PSINet, has also been banished. He has disappeared from view since resigning his roles and said he doesn't intend to ever be a public figure again. Still, he's out there doing something, and we may someday see what that is.
MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor still runs his company, but he rarely appears in public forums or agrees to media interviews anymore after the settlement of a government suit alleging accounting fraud. Will he start to reemerge?
What they have in common with Case is that Schrader was PSINet; Saylor is MicroStrategy. Few would separate the leader from the company. When such a figure is getting beaten up, the business takes a bruising.
And when bad things happen at the company, that front person takes the blame. That's reasonable -- if chairmen and CEOs aren't paid to know what's going on at their companies, what exactly are they being paid for?
Many others have jumped or been pushed out of the limelight. One of them is John Sidgmore, until recently the CEO of WorldCom. It made sense for that company to distance itself from an executive who was around while the accounting troubles occurred. Sidgmore is still working on start-ups but he is hardly under the same unrelenting public spotlight.
Case, in particular, can't be easily written off. After the announcement that he would resign as chairman rather than face a probable fight to oust him, people in the Washington area immediately began asking whether this meant AOL would be spun off, and whether Case could eventually run the company again.
Proxicom founder Raul Fernandez, who himself is contemplating a next move after selling his company, speculates that "Steve Case could pull a Steve Jobs" -- that is, come back to his company after leaving it, as Jobs did with Apple. Some even guessed that Case would reclaim AOL from Time Warner by buying it himself.
Fernandez says he thinks the cult of personality had much to do with Case's decision. "I think Steve came to the conclusion that the company was better off with him removed," Fernandez says.
Barris says he could also see Case launching a start-up, or totally reinventing himself to do something outside of technology or media.
"Guys like this typically don't fade into the woodwork," says Barris.
In the meantime, AOL Time Warner will find that getting rid of a symbol won't immediately solve the problems at the company. A name change, as in dropping "AOL," may be the next step, again one designed to show investors that the company intends to change.
Will Case's personal defeat and the current distrust of Internet CEOs make new executives reluctant to associate themselves too closely with their businesses? Some ask: Why bother putting people up on a pedestal when they are only doomed to fall? And so many executives are purposely lying low, trying to avoid attention.
But analyst Arlen says he has always preferred the personality-driven corporation, because at such a place a genuine company culture is developed and there's someone out there to admire or vilify. "I like having a face to a company," he says.
At AOL Time Warner now, Ted Leonsis is left standing as the person most closely associated with building the AOL empire. He has also become, with Redskins owner Dan Snyder, one of the most recognizable sports moguls of his generation. Talk about being the face. He has learned, of course, that in sports as in business, they love you when the team is doing well and hate you when the team is on a losing streak.
In the end, what most of these titans worry about, aside from their own bank accounts, is how history will remember them.
And Case is left without a day job but with a strong need to fix his reputation.
"It would be a shame if the legacy is a screwed-up Time Warner merger rather than building a terrific company with a major impression on industry," says Barris.
That's up to Mr. AOL himself, based on what he does next.
Shannon Henry's e-mail address is email@example.com. She will host a live Web chat today at noon at www.washingtonpost.com/technology.