Thursday, September 01, 2011

Long Distance Warrior: Bill McGowan, Entrepreneur

Remember television commercials for collect calls? How about dialing in account numbers before making long distance calls? These were actually considered breakthroughs at the time, made possible by Bill McGowan, the driven CEO of MCI who turned telecommunications into a legitimate industry—and a rather competitive of at that. Underappreciated outside of telecom business circles, McGowan’s contributions are documented for a popular audience in Sarah Holt’s Long Distance Warrior (promo here), which airs on New York’s WNET this coming Sunday.

Though of working class Pennsylvanian stock, McGowan had the soul of a cowboy. Entrepreneurial by nature, he never settled for the life of a company man, unless it was his company. In the late 1960’s, Microwave Communications Inc. reached out to McGowan to help finance their planned network of microwave relays. Though designed to carry truckers’ radio communications, the lines could also handle long distance business calls. AT&T did not like that, challenging MCI’s plans in court. This attracted the government’s attention, indirectly leading to the mother of all anti-trust suits. Eventually, MCI won and AT&T lost, at least in court.

Though reaction to the federal litigation that ultimately broke up AT&T cut unevenly across political lines, Warrior largely ignores the debates of the time, instead pointing out how well and how quickly the hidebound AT&T adapted to a competitive environment. Yet, the real eye-opener of McGowan’s story is the extent of his vision. Under his watch, MCI was an early developer of e-mail and cell phone communications. Frankly, they were too far ahead of their time to properly capitalize on their innovations.

Warrior makes a compelling case to consider McGowan alongside Silicon Valley idols, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. However, the straight-from-the-hip capitalist never cultivated a hipster-friendly image. Indeed, he somewhat resembled a decidedly frugal version of James Garner’s good old F. Ross Johnson in Barbarians at the Gate.

Though not especially artful in its presentation, Warrior tells a fascinating story, conveying a good sense of the late McGowan through those who knew him best—his MCI co-workers. In fact, it is something quite rare on television: a film knowledgeable of business and sympathetic to the entrepreneurs who bear considerable risks in hopes of reaping future economic rewards. Whip-smart TV, Warrior is definitely recommended when it airs this coming Sunday night (9/4) on New York’s Thirteen.