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Garry Betty, 49; shaped EarthLink as a major firm

January 04, 2007|Alex Pham and James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writers

Garry Betty, the chief executive of EarthLink Inc. who oversaw the company's rise into one of the nation's largest online service providers and campaigned to bring widespread wireless Internet access to cities, died Tuesday in an Atlanta hospital of complications from cancer, the company announced. He was 49.

After building EarthLink as a premium dial-up Internet access provider, Betty thought the business had transformed as high-speed connections became more affordable. By the end of 2005, almost a third of EarthLink customers were using broadband connections, which provided 40% of its revenue.

Under Betty, a debt-free EarthLink tapped into its huge stash of cash and embarked on a major expansion into high-speed wireless, cellphones, land-line telephones and business networking.

Last year, the Atlanta-based company launched its Helio brand cellphone service in a joint venture with SK Telecom of South Korea, and won contracts to build wireless networks in numerous cities from Anaheim to Philadelphia and south to hurricane-stricken New Orleans.

As an Internet service provider, EarthLink expanded to offer phone service and, in a venture with Covad Communications Group Inc., deliver both reliable land-line phone and broadband service directly over copper lines without the need for new electronic gear in homes.

Betty scoffed at industry analysts who said his new ventures were coming late to markets that had little room for more competitors.

"As long as we have the opportunity to offer alternatives and options, we've demonstrated our ability to compete," Betty said last year in an interview with The Times.

Though analysts focused on declining revenue from the dial-up business and the difficult transition, Betty pointed out that gross profit margins had been rising every year -- and that EarthLink needs only a small part of the market to succeed.

"It always tickles me when I hear analysts talk about how dire things are for us," he said. "We've been going out of business within two years for the last three or four years."

Mike Lunsford, who took over as EarthLink's interim chief executive Nov. 20 when Betty was diagnosed with cancer of the adrenal gland, will remain at the helm.

The son of a speech therapist and a homemaker, Betty grew up in Columbus, Ga. He put himself through college at the Georgia Institute of Technology by selling aluminum siding over the telephone, graduating in 3 1/2 years in 1979 with a degree in chemical engineering.

After stints at IBM and Hayes Microcomputer Products, Betty went to work at Digital Communications Associates Inc., where, at 32, he became the youngest chief executive of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

In 1996, he became chief executive of EarthLink, a fast-growing company then based in Pasadena and founded by entrepreneur Sky Dayton.

"Garry brought seasoned management to a young team," said Dayton, now founder and chief executive of Helio. "We were growing explosively, but we hadn't figured out how we were going to make money. Garry brought discipline. And he was an incredible teacher."

During the company's early years, Betty would spend 30 minutes at the end of each day calling new customers, Dayton said.

His decline into cancer was swift. Before being diagnosed, Betty had been running 30 miles a week, said Scott Hobby, a longtime friend.

"We didn't expect him to die anytime soon," Hobby said. "A few hours before he died, we were planning what we were going to do this weekend. He was going to take his nephew to see Cirque du Soleil."

Betty is survived by his wife, Kathy; sister Rena; nephew Cameron Lane; and niece Amber Wilhite.

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