RAY SMITH’S UNPRETENTIOUS OFFICE AT Bell Atlantic’s Arlington, Va., headquarters is not the typical CEO’s lair. Tucked in one corner is an unframed photograph of Martin Luther King Jr., one of Smith’s leadership role models. And on his desk is a small sign from the ’60s: “Be Here Now.” In this office such words aren’t as much a slogan as a command to seize the day. And with Bell Atlantic’s startling $31 billion acquisition of cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. last month, Smith, 56, has done just that.
It was the biggest deal in American communications history—the second-biggest corporate merger ever. If the buyout is approved by the federal government, next year will see the creation of a giant entertainment-and-in-formation company that could bring interactive video games, home shopping and movies-on-demand to more than 28 million cable-TV customers nationwide. “I [was] determined not to allow us to fall into the same trap the railroads and steel companies did,” Smith says, spelling out the fortunes of less-fortunate industries that didn’t change with the times. “Anyone knows that the fax, computer, television and phone are information appliances that are coming together.” Perhaps. But so far, Smith is the only corporate leader who has brought together rivals and regulators to create the much-ballyhooed information superhighway. “Rax Smith is a persuasive visionary,” says Jim Cullen, Bell Atlantic’s president. “He’s like Bobby Fischer in a chess match—he can see six moves ahead.”
The son of immigrants who made their way from Birmingham, England, to a suburb of Pittsburgh, Smith grew up in a house filled with books and the talk of the steel mills where his father worked. Although Smith was dyslexic, he immersed himself in science fiction and eventually worked his way from a paper-deliver route at age 8 to a copy-boy’s job at the Pittsburgh Gazette at 14. High school and college were supported by a string of toilsome jobs: mail carrier, supermarket clerk, gardener, laborer, steelworker.
As driven as Smith was, his mother drove him harder. “She wanted me to be more than a laborer,” he says, breaking into a parody of his mother’s English accent. ” ‘You have to maintain a lively dissatisfaction with things as they are.’ So I proceeded to look onward and upward.”
At Carnegie-Mellon University, Smith found two loves: engineering and theater. He was attracted to the girls in theater but saw science and math as a “wonderful platform for the future.” (Smith also joined the NAACP in college and continues to be active in inner-city programs promoting minority hiring.) He eventually graduated with an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh, and when it came time to choose between his two loves, he had no illusions. “Theater was one part merit and nine parts luck,” he says. “I decided to go into a profession that was seven parts merit and three parts luck—that was business.”
In 1959, Smith joined AT&T, where he shot up the ladder from engineering to operations, finance and management, even detouring into public relations and advertising. But throughout his long career, Smith never forgot the smell of the greasepaint. Over the years, he has either directed, acted in or produced 25 plays—and has written three.
One of his playwriting efforts, a comedy titled The Fetal Pig, was inspired by a milk carton that told three salient facts about Thomas Jefferson. That got Smith to wondering how” he and his friends would fare if their lives were reduced to three sentences, so he set about writing a drama about four middle-aged men who suspect that life is passing them by and decide to start anew—a metaphor for Smith’s push to bring Bell Atlantic into the digital age. (After Judge Harold Green broke up AT&T’s monopoly on telephone service in the ’80s, each Baby Bell became an independent company.) Smith says he hopes his milk carton wouldn’t read “merged titanic communications companies” but “helped wife raise four great kids.”
Smith and the wife who helped raise those kids, Ann Smith, 55, were amicably divorced in 1989, and he now keeps company with Phyllis Goldstein, an Asian-American artist, in a comfortable suburban town house in Potomac, Md. Three of his four grown children (Drew, 31, Matthew, 28, Paul, 26) work in the computer business, and the fourth, Cathy Frorer, 29, works in the investment field. Most of Smith’s spare time these days is given over to writing an autobiography for his newly born granddaughter on a laptop he takes with him virtually everywhere. Even so, he hasn’t forgotten the roar of the crowd. “I plan to do this job very well,” he says, poker-faced, of his latest triumph, “so I can go on later to direct on Broadway.”
SANDRA McELWAINE in Arlington