Gerald Levin apologizes for AOL-TW merger

Former CEO calls on other execs to own up to mistakes

Ten years later, Gerald Levin has apologized for creating AOL Time Warner. Levin, CEO of Time Warner a decade ago, acknowledged during a rare appearance with AOL co-founder Steve Case on Monday that the merger of those two companies was a mistake.

He also acknowledged that his apology was a long time coming; this week marks the 10-year anniversary of that ill-fated merger.

"I presided over the worst deal of the century, apparently," Levin said early into the 22-minute interview.

"I have been obviously reflecting on it," he said. "I was the CEO. I was in charge. I'm really very sorry about the pain and suffering and loss that was caused," he said on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Levin, Case and a host of other executives from both companies announced the creation of AOL Time Warner on Jan. 10, 2000. The plan had AOL, using the value of its stock -- wildly inflated by the raging Internet financial bubble -- to purchase Time Warner for about $164 billion.

During the ensuing decade, the worth of AOL Time Warner stock would sink by 90% and AOL would be spun out as a separate company again. The merger would be called by pundits one of the worst in American history, marked by massive layoffs and crushed retirement savings plans.

"I take responsibility," Levin said Monday. "It wasn't the board. It wasn't my colleagues at Time Warner. It wasn't the bankers and lawyers; there were a lot of them. It was not Steve Case, who was a brilliant young digital entrepreneur."

Levin compared AOL Time Warner to a mall when it should have been a supermarket, likening it to GE, AIG and Citigroup. He also called on other CEOs who have made mistakes to own up to them.

"Let's hear publicly from Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch -- you know, on and on," he said. "Maybe you can say in my case it's a little late. But I have had a chance to reflect on it."

Asked what went wrong, Levin, 70, spoke slowly, quietly and deliberately.

"I had the passion, I had the missionary zeal," he said, "but I didn't have sufficient compassion and understanding for everyone up and down the line. They had a lot of psychological things going on."

Added Case: "Vision is one thing, execution is another. If we had taken the entire senior executive team from both companies, the top 100 people, and blown 'em up and started over with a new group, that new group -- without any of the history and any of the baggage, any of the perspectives -- probably would have done a better job."

Co-host Joe Kernen, though, wasn't buying it, suggesting there was "no way to make it work given where those valuations were at that point in the bubble."

Case conceded that he and Levin back then were focused "too much on internal politics -- and, frankly, on Wall Street -- and not enough on innovating for customers, and seizing the day."

He also recalled board meetings where his suggestions to invest in hot young tech companies fell on deaf ears.

"I was arguing we should be venture capitalists trying to fund these next-generation companies, which is something we did at AOL, and there was real resistance," he said.

"At the same time, on the Warner Bros. side, they spent $1 billion a year funding movies. ... which is essentially venture capital," he said.

"That's the debate we were having constantly."

Levin quit TW in 2002 and now co-owns and helps run Moonview Sanctuary, a posh healing and rejuvenation center in Santa Monica.

Case resigned from TW's board in 2005, the same year he founded Revolution, a holding company. He's also one of the biggest land owners in Hawaii.