Quiet, graceful exit for TW's Parsons

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NEW YORK -- Richard Parsons is widely tipped to take a political or other public service role next year after he leaves the Time Warner CEO post to his deputy Jeff Bewkes as of Jan. 1, and he's expected to vacate the chairman post when his contract expires in May.

TW said Monday that Parsons, 59, is staying on as chairman for now, and a spokesman said it is up to the board to decide on the future of the chairmanship.

But a move into the public service realm, such as a much-rumored possible run for New York City mayor or a future government post, would appear to be a natural transition for Parsons. After all, his main job at TW was to avoid all-out war within the conglomerate after the botched AOL merger and calm down activist investors and federal authorities investigating accounting irregularities at AOL.

Wall Street observers say the sociable bridge-builder was the right man at the right time for TW, but now a different kind of executive is needed to drive the company forward.

"TW was a horror when he took over, and it needed someone to settle all of the lawsuits, investigations and disruptions," said longtime industry analyst and investor Hal Vogel. "This took quite a number of years. He also handled (dissident investor Carl) Icahn well, and this illustrates his great people skills."

Indeed, Parsons will be remembered as the first African-American to run a major media and entertainment conglomerate and as the only top-level executive to have survived the AOL-TW years.

"The board is grateful for Dick's exceptional leadership in turning this company around and putting it on a solid foundation for the future," said Robert Clark, chairman of the nominating and governance committee of TW's board.

During the past couple of years, Parsons, has increasingly signaled a desire to step back from day-to-day operations. He has let Bewkes enforce the smooth operation of key units and has focused more time on operating his vineyard in Tuscany.

"Today's decision is the culmination of a thoughtful and disciplined process that began in early 2006, when Dick Parsons initially approached the board to discuss the timetable for the CEO succession," Clark said.

Miller Tabak + Co. analyst David Joyce says Parsons and Bewkes had "a complementary relationship," with Parsons being the "lawyerly, calm, smooth diplomat who was needed to maneuver TW through a rough patch and settle the louder internal disputes."

The Brooklyn-bred lawyer had early career stints working for the Rockefeller family and then led a turnaround at Dime Savings Bank.

He joined TW as a board member in early 1991 before becoming president in 1995. TW CEO Gerald Levin became his mentor, and Parsons earned a reputation for being able to work with pretty much anyone and everyone, no matter how difficult others found them to be.

When he became co-COO of the merged AOL TW, he was seen as somewhat of a lightweight compared to his fellow co-COO Robert Pittman, the hard-driving AOL executive. But in the end, only Parsons survived the postmerger upheaval to take the CEO job in May 2002 before adding the chairman title a year later.

Among his many civic and nonprofit commitments, Parsons is co-chairman of the Mayor's Commission on Economic Opportunity in New York; chairman emeritus of the Partnership for New York City; and chairman of the Apollo Theatre Foundation.
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