Covad's shares closed Friday at $10.06, off 73% for the year. That's only slightly above all-time lows set Tuesday of $9.75 on Nasdaq, well off a 52-week high of $66 a share. That's led to speculation that the broadband provider would make an attractive takeover target, though Knowling gives the impression any attempt would bring a fight.
Adversity brings a smile to Knowling's face.
Though he says he doesn't like to talk about it, he acknowledges the subtle and not-so-subtle racism he's faced throughout life when he's asked about comments that he is arrogant.
"My whole career, I've had to balance a sort of double standard," he says. "Back when I wasn't in charge, my aggressiveness was considered arrogance and being militant. Those are words used for young, aggressive black males.
"When my white counterparts would demonstrate the same traits, it was termed 'assertive,' 'initiative,' " says Knowling, who has joined with Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina and others in trying to create more opportunities for women and minorities in the changing world of technology.
But at the end of the day, Knowling says he thinks of himself as a businessman trying to dominate a business, regardless of his race.
"We've got a unique opportunity because we're creating something new," Knowling says. "The good news is we're writing the chapters. We don't have any idea how big this book is going to turn out when we're done, but we're writing chapters."
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Seeking DSL Dominance
Covad has yet to prove to Wall Street that is has the strength to succeed in an increasingly crowded DSL provider market.
At A Glance
Founded: 1996. Went public in January 1999 at $18.
Headquarters: Santa Clara, Calif.
Leadership: Robert E. Knowling Jr., chief executive
No. of employees: 1,700
Competition: NorthPoint Communications, Rhythms NetConnections, Pacific Bell. Source: Covad and Bloomberg News