MONEY FROM THIN AIR
The Story of Craig McCaw, the Visionary
Who Invented the Cell Phone Industry,
By O. Casey Corr
Crown -- 310pp -- $25.00
Writing about Craig O. McCaw is no easy task. The introverted wireless pioneer hates to talk about himself or disclose anything about his private life. And he spends very little time in his office, so only a handful of the executives around him know him well. It's no surprise, then, that McCaw is not nearly as well known as other leading figures in the technology industry, such as IBM's Lou Gerstner, Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy, or Microsoft's Bill Gates.
Enter O. Casey Corr, a business and technology writer for the Seattle Times. In his Money From Thin Air, Corr has provided the first in-depth book on the eccentric Seattle billionaire. It's a thorough history of McCaw and his pathbreaking career. But it winds up stronger on details than analysis.
Corr has a fascinating character to work with. McCaw, the second of four boys, grew up in a wealthy family in Seattle. His father, Elroy, was a talented but disorganized media entrepreneur. Elroy made $20 million when he turned New York City's WINS radio station into one of the first rock 'n` roll stations in the country. But he rarely kept paper records of any ofd, Craig started running his father's cable-television business while he was still a student at Stanford University. He made calls from his Palo Alto dorm room to check in with managers at the company. After graduating, McCaw built the cable business steadily and turned it into a large, successful regional player.
And that was just a warm-up. Beginning in the 1980s, McCaw put together the largest cellular company in the country, McCaw Communications. He built aggressively--grabbing wireless licenses from the government, loading up on debt, and acquiring any cellular company that he could get his hands on. He sold his company to AT&T in 1994 for $13 billion. Today, McCaw has equity holdings in wireless provider Nextel Communications and local phone competitor Nextlink Communications that are worth billions more.
Even with this dramatic raw material, however, writing about such a reticent subject can be daunting. Corr was able to spend some time with McCaw, but the author concedes that "after a few interviews [McCaw] got bored and quietly shut the door." That left Corr piecing together much of the story from McCaw's friends and business associates. Unfortunately, this approach leaves Thin Air a little thin in many places.
Nevertheless, Corr did his best, logging long hours in his reporting. In one chapter, he asserts that McCaw's father was capable of charming just about anyone. Corr hilariously describes how Elroy, trying to talk his way into a meeting with Air Force General Curtis E. LeMay, inadvertently got into a top-secret briefing for President John F. Kennedy in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis. The elder McCaw heard part of the presentation before the Secret Service discovered he was an intruder.
Where Corr has been able to dig deep enough to uncover some pieces of McCaw's character, the book becomes truly compelling. In one section, for example, there's an account of a McCaw interview of Russell Daggatt, who later became a top lieutenant. McCaw explains that he doesn't think a business should be run just to create profits--rather it needs to create something of value to customers. Cellular-phone service, McCaw believes, lets people have freedom that they otherwise wouldn't have. This appeals to McCaw particularly, he says, because he is nomadic and would rather be on his yacht in the Pacific Ocean than in his office. "Human beings from the time they discovered seeds have been enslaved towards places," McCaw says.
Elsewhere, we learn that McCaw is anything but your typical hard-nosed executive. He once suggested that radio frequency should be set aside for telepathic communication. He spends long stretches in his office staring off into space, thinking. And he doesn't read press accounts about himself, figuring that such stories might just upset him. Corr points out that McCaw almost certainly will not read this book.
Unfortunately, those sorts of insights are rare. More often, Corr recounts the facts of McCaw's personal and business exploits but is unable to give readers much understanding of his motivations and personality. For example, near the end, Corr tells how, in the mid-1990s, McCaw became fascinated with Keiko, the killer whale that starred in the Warner Bros. movie Free Willy. He spent millions to get the whale out of captivity, build a facility for him in Oregon, and, ultimately, return the whale to his native Iceland. One time, before the whale went home, McCaw swam beside him and called it "the high point of my life spiritually." But Corr isn't quite sure what to make of the story. "It was one more Craig McCaw anecdote that supplied detail, but somehow only made his character more intriguing and more unknowable," he writes.
Give Corr credit for tackling a difficult, important subject. But to truly understand McCaw's character, we may have to wait for the recluse's own book. Don't hold your breath.