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The real McCaw

He’s not as famous as Bill Gates, but the cell-phone king’s story is still fascinating.

When it comes to fame and fortune, billionaire Craig McCaw is overshadowed a bit by his neighbor, Bill Gates.

But McCaw is a telecommunications visionary who is well worth watching and learning from, writes O. Casey Corr in his book “Money From Thin Air” (Crown, $25, hardback).

Corr’s entertaining and insightful business biography explains how McCaw built a huge cable-television business almost from scratch, then invented the cell-phone industry and sold McCaw Cellular to AT&T for a handsome profit.

Now, as chairman of Teledesic LLC, McCaw is leading the charge to build “a global, broadband Internet-in-the-Sky” that will use satellites to serve “businesses, schools, and individuals everywhere on the planet.” Key investors in the ambitious project recently included heavy hitters such as Gates, Motorola, the Boeing Co., and Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia.

McCaw is decidedly not a typical techno-geek. Though dyslexic, he now is a pilot with a coveted multi-engine rating. He allowed subordinates to pelt him with dinner rolls at a party. And he has ridden on the back of Keiko, the killer whale of “Free Willy” fame. That experience not only moved McCaw deeply, it also led him to fund a foundation to try to help the animal learn how to survive outside aquariums, in the ocean again.

“McCaw wanted to sever Keiko’s dependence on hand-fed salmon just as he wants to cut the leash that holds office workers to their desks,” Corr writes. “New wireless devices linked to powerful data systems would restore the nomad, allowing people to live where they wished and freeing them from the pollution and traffic jams of urban centers–or so he hoped.”

Business lessons abound in McCaw’s wake and in his ideas for future communications. He was not an outstanding student at Stanford University, yet majoring in history “allowed him to analyze how people succeed or fail.” And that skill repeatedly has served him well, Corr points out.

Indeed, McCaw’s father built his family business on a slippery slope of mismanaged debt. When Craig McCaw took over the troubled operations in his early twenties, he quickly became a “master of leverage.” And he remained very “careful not to let his need for cash restrict his strategic choices,” according to Corr.

McCaw once declared that he prefers hiring “invigorating, dangerous, and interesting people who are not all the same and who cause trouble, because that’s how you get things done.”

Yet McCaw himself is known as a meticulous contingency planner with a quiet aloofness and a knack for relentless focus. According to Corr, “McCaw has never been one to start Plan A unless Plan B is in readiness.” And he always sets up a “back door” exit, just in case a deal goes awry.

“Money from Thin Air” initially had McCaw’s cooperation, but he soon wandered off to “matters of more importance to him … he disliked talking about his life and did not care to read anything about himself,” Corr concedes. Fortunately, friends, employees and family members willingly filled the gaps in this fascinating study.

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