SEATTLE — Only a month after completing the sale of his cellular phone empire to AT&T Corp. for $11.5 billion, Craig McCaw on Friday spurned an offer to be put on the board of the telecommunications giant, raising speculation that he may soon launch a competitive venture.
Making no effort to quell the speculation, McCaw said in a statement that AT&T's broad communications properties "make it difficult for me to make even minor contributions to the telecommunications industry and not be perceived to be technically in conflict with my duties as a director of AT&T."
A McCaw Cellular Communications spokesman said he was unaware of any active plans by McCaw, the company's founder and former chairman, to start a new business, but he added that "whatever he does will be something to do with the (telecommunications) business." As an AT&T director, the spokesman said, "he would be exposed to proprietary information."
AT&T reacted calmly to the news. "I understand Craig's reasons and appreciate his concern and candor in addressing the potential for conflicts of interest in advance," AT&T Chairman Robert Allen said.
McCaw bent over backward to praise AT&T. "Much to its credit, AT&T is working exceedingly hard to develop a broad array of products and services that demystify and simplify the information superhighway for an increasingly broad group of customers," he said.
McCaw's future is still largely tied to that of AT&T. According to the terms of the sale, McCaw will receive a 3% share of AT&T in exchange for his stake in McCaw Cellular. He cannot sell the shares for two years.
But analysts speculate that McCaw's lean-and-mean business approach may have come into conflict with AT&T's more bureaucratic style of management, leading to a parting of ways.
"Obviously, Craig has differences in opinion as to the manner in which McCaw should be merged with AT&T and the future direction of the companies," Daniel Briere, an analyst at TeleChoice, a Verona, N.J.-based market researcher, told Bloomberg Business News.
McCaw has not signed an agreement barring him from starting a competing business, and those who know him say he may well be eager to jump back into the fray.
An early visionary in the cellular business, McCaw sold his father's small stake in cable television and borrowed huge sums to buy up cellular licenses at a time when cellular was still considered a risky business.
McCaw has already shown some interest in new communications ventures. Early this year, he joined Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates to put down seed money for an ambitious venture to create a new worldwide communications system by putting 840 low-flying satellites into orbit.
Some speculate that McCaw may get back into the wireless business by taking advantage of the upcoming auction of radio wave licenses by the Federal Communications Commission.