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I can still remember the shock when AOL unveiled its merger with Time Warner back in January 2000. Even by the dizzy standards of the dotcom boom, this was a monster. AOL Time Warner, melding 'new' economy hype with stalwarts like Time magazine and CNN, would have 100,000 employees and carry a stock market valuation of $180bn (£108bn).

The story of that deal is told in a new book, Stealing Time, currently serialised in The Times. Alec Klein, a reporter with The Washington Post, really gets under the skin of the two oddball protagonists, Steve Case of AOL and Gerald Levin of Time Warner.

What comes out in this book is the sheer awfulness of the AOL culture. With so much money, AOL executives thought they could get away with anything.

One woman used to transport her personal stair-climber kit around the US on sales trips, enabling her to work out in her hotel room. On one occasion, it failed to turn up. The solution? She spent a couple of thousand dollars on a new machine, then left it behind in the room when she checked out.

AOL’s arrogance knew no bounds. With approval for the merger still pending from regulators, AOL sent a team of carpenters into Time Warner’s revered boardroom and started cutting it up into modern executive offices. Time Warner even thought about paying the multibillion dollar break fee just to get out of this ill-starred marriage.

Case, the supposedly ‘hip’ internet tycoon, comes across as monosyllabic and robotic. Levin, compared by some to a brutal Roman emperor, has an unexpectedly compassionate side. Neither would survive for long.

Without the mass hallucinations of the dotcom boom, this deal would never have happened.

  • Jon Ashworth, business features editor at The Times.

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