People Skills Set Parsons Apart


The cable industry is replete with smart, intelligent and passionate executives, but few are as well-liked as AOL Time Warner Inc.'s next CEO, Richard Parsons.

Industry executives, organizational leaders and AOL Time Warner employees all said the personable 53-year-old Parsons' acute business savvy and unassuming disposition are perfectly suited to lead arguably the most diverse and complicated media company in the world.

Departing AOL Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin named Parsons to lead AOL Time Warner after he retires in May. That makes Parsons the highest-ranking African-American executive in a cable industry that has only taken baby steps toward diversifying the ranks of upper management.

Those who know Parsons well have no reservations that the physically imposing, 6-foot-4-inch New York City native and current AOL Time Warner co-COO is the perfect successor to Levin.

"Dick's challenge is to run several very distinct large companies under one large company, but there's no person in the industry that could have ably stepped into Levin's shoes than Dick. He is the most remarkable leader of people, absent Gerry, in the business today," said Hindery, president of Yankees Entertainment and Sports network and a longtime Parsons friend.

"In an industry that has more than its fair share of backbiting, I have never heard anyone say anything vitriolic about him — even after obviously being involved in some sticky situations," Court TV president Henry Schleiff said.

But while Parsons is regarded as a sharp executive, several executives said his people skills really set him apart.

Warner Bros. worldwide human resources senior vice president Kiko Washington said Parsons is genuinely concerned about AOL Time Warner's employees and is passionate about bringing in the most qualified and talented people to the organization — and keeping them once they're in the door.

"One of his major objectives is that the talent that we have here remains here, and that we are a magnet to attract the best possible people to the company," he said. "He strikes an amazing balance between the business side of the company and the social responsibility that AOL Time Warner exemplifies."

Many industry observers wonder if Parsons will also be as passionate and outspoken about the industry's diversity initiatives. Being the highest-ranking African-American executive in cable, many will undoubtedly look to Parsons to play an active role in helping attract qualified minorities to the sector.

The industry has struggled to attract and retain minorities and women in upper management positions. According to NAMIC, minorities hold about 30 percent of the jobs in cable, but only about 5 percent of those posts are at the senior vice president level or above.

"Obviously, to have someone in that prominent a position is really important for minorities because it provides a role model for other minorities within the industry," NAMIC president Patricia Andrews-Keenan said. "It will be interesting to see what develops going forward."

"A man of color is about to run the biggest company in the industry, which is important in itself," Hindery added. "But to have it be someone of that incredible caliber is remarkable."

Born and raised in Brooklyn and Queens, Parsons attended the University of Hawaii, but earned a law degree with honors from Albany Law School.

In the early 1970's, Parsons served as assistant counsel for then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, before ascending to Washington, D.C., as a senior White House aide under President Gerald Ford.

After serving as managing partner at the New York law firm Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, Parsons served as CEO of Dime Bancorp Inc. It was there that Parsons began his association with Time Warner, serving on its board of directors.

He eventually became president of Time Warner in 1995, working with Levin to build up the company into a telecommunications powerhouse. He also presided over — and became intimately involved with — the company's two biggest mergers: with Turner Broadcasting System Inc. in 1996 and America Online Inc. in 2000.

Parsons also remains active within the government sector, both in New York and Washington. He's part of New York mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg's transition team and is co-chairman of President Bush's Social Security Commission.

Schleiff, who reports to Parsons, said his ability to build alliances and influence people has made him successful on the business front and a favorite among cable executives.

"His influence on the occasions that I need his judgement or I need him to do a little blocking and tackling for us has been enormous," said Schleiff, who credits Parsons with Court TV's turnaround and growth over the past two years. "I really think what you see is that he's been behind the scenes in a lot of the progress and victories that AOL Time Warner has enjoyed."