Mea culpa from AOL TW

Emotions run high at yearly meeting

NEW YORK — AOL Time Warner’s Steve Case and Richard Parsons asked shareholders for absolution, and patience, Gerald Levin bid a teary goodbye, and investors fumed at the conglom’s annual meeting, capping off a year that saw the market value of the merged company fall by $50 billion.

“Those are our hard-earned dollars that we entrusted to you, and you have decimated them,” yelled private investor Mark Hariton, slamming hefty executive pay packages and blasting a low-profile Case. “Get back in the trenches. We’re paying you to be a full-time employee. You used to be a visionary — now you’ve become an executive.”

One shareholder called the merger “pure hot air” and said Time Warner stockholders had been conned. She urged investors to vote out the entire board. Another asked why the debt-laden conglom is “replicating the Taj Mahal in Columbus Circle,” referring to new corporate headquarters under construction.

Still, considering the magnitude of losses, the ire was relatively contained — no raucous protests outside or flying fruit inside. “The tone of the meeting was more gracious and respectful than I had anticipated,” a relieved Parsons told reporters after the confab.

It’s true that annual meetings aren’t the slugfests they used to be. Or perhaps shareholders were touched by Levin, who choked up and blew kisses on his way out after 30 years at the company, including 10 as CEO — or as incoming chief executive Parsons and chairman Case ate humble pie.

“Things didn’t go quite as we had expected,” Case said. “The company got off-track. We realize we have to work to regain your confidence.” He apologized for setting profit targets that were too high and sticking with them too long.

Levin urged shareholders not to lose faith in the company and joked that now he’d “just fade away. An old CEO.”

Mutual admiration society

Execs traded compliments. Case and Parsons called Levin a visionary. Levin described Parsons as “one of the most intellectually incisive leaders in corporate America — don’t let that teddy bear demeanor deceive you.”

During the meeting, held at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, AOL TW shareholder Jesse Jackson called the ascent of Parsons, an African-American, to the top job at the world’s biggest media company an historic event.

Parsons promised to fix AOL, which has been slammed by an advertising downturn, slower subscriber growth and questions regarding the rollout of its high-speed service. AOL TW chief operating officer Bob Pittman is now directly overseeing the division.