Who Is This Guy? -- Craig Mccaw Is One Of The Most Powerful People In Telecommunications. So What's He Up To?

Once again, Craig McCaw has them guessing.

The huge planned deal with telecommunications giant AT&T was complex enough - AT&T spending $3.8 billion for one-third of McCaw Cellular Communications. But the most baffling question had to do with Craig himself.

Under terms of the deal expected to close this summer, Craig and his three brothers would sell an option for control of the company for $100 million, plus $600 million to exercise the option. That would still leave the McCaws as the company's largest shareholders.

Was Craig giving up control just as he was nearing his dream of a national cellular network? Craig leaving McCaw would be like Bill Gates leaving Microsoft.

Craig met with a few hundred company employees to address their fears that they would be swallowed up by the 345,000-employee AT&T.

`You all know, this deal includes the potential that they can fire me," Craig said. `"hey can't fire you, but they can fire me."

So long as we run the company well, AT&T won't have reason to take us over, Craig said. We must work hard, he said, a smile forming on his face, "because I never want to be fired."

But if Craig runs McCaw well, isn't that a greater incentive for AT&T to take control?

"To be realistic, you have to assume they will exercise the option," said Executive Vice President Tom Alberg. But maybe they won't, considering the huge McCaw debt AT&T would have to absorb, he adds. "You can argue either way."

So what is Craig up to?

Craig, 43, says he's having fun but is quite capable of moving on to other interests, like converting soybean oil for use in diesel engines. But others suspect the master deal-maker has a secret plan for staying in charge. Telecommunications auththor George Gilder speculated that Craig could wind up succeeding Robert Allen as chairman of AT&T and find himself as the most powerful figure in telecommunications.

People look to Craig's personality to find clues to his next move, but he remains an enigma.

He has a playful side. He keeps toys in his office. He hung a fake security camera in his office when the building suffered an outbreak of thefts. He enjoys a food fight and doesn't mind being on the receiving end. Allen tossed a dinner roll at him once.

Craig made a rare public appearance in February when he gave $1 million to the Seattle Commons, the downtown planned community and park.

He remains elusive.

GARDINER DAVIS HAS KNOWN Craig since teaching him at Lakeside School. Davis likes and admires him, but says Craig puts on a mask when he meets others. "I'd sort of like to meet the real person and find out what he really thinks," says Davis, who works as a writing teacher at the company.

Craig McCaw is the solitary figure, sitting in his spartan Kirkland office facing west, a symbol to him of his focus on the future.

Late in the day, as the sun fades over the Olympics, the darkening glass walls and marble floor make the place seem empty and cold. He switches on a few lamps, but the place remains dim. Cheap electric baseboard heaters ring the room. He sips Evian bottled water. The place feels like a chapel or a library study room, made for whispers and deep thinking.

During an interview, he resists giving any personal information about his daily life. Only after prodding does he release some tidbits. He gets up at 7 a.m. Then he catches the morning news programs, eats a bowl of mixed-grain cereal doused with fruit juice, scans the newspaper and heads for work, usually arriving at 8:30 unless he stops for an hour of exercise.

He doesn't take the elevator to his office, but runs the four flights of stairs. It's "my favorite thing to do. I love to run up and down the stairs," he says. "Why walk? I'm enthusiastic to be here, and when I get here, I'm wound up."

He comes to the office most days with little planned in advance. "You wait for life to give you a clue as to where to go that day. I hate the orchestration of life. Most executives die frustrated (because) they have been orchestrated into boxes."

NO WONDER PEOPLE find him intriguing. It's the way he thinks, they say.

"He often has the ability to see things the rest of us can't see," says Mark Hamilton, McCaw executive vice president.

McCaw President James Barksdale says Craig brings a different dimension to business analysis. Craig will study the personalities involved in business events and make predictions from that of how things will go.

"It's not just a quirk," says Barksdale. "It's a very important strategic advantage he has in the way he thinks."

"I approach things differently than other people," Craig says. He's not sure why. It could be from his suffering a mild form of dyslexia that causes his eyes to see letters out of order. At first, he's hesitant about talking about his dyslexia - that's personal stuff - but then he goes on:

"A dyslexic tends to be more conceptual and do things which other people wouldn't see as obvious. So maybe it's a strategic asset . . . I can't go to a piece of paper and organize things as most people would in a way that they could understand and come up with a plan.

"I have to explain conceptually what we want to accomplish, and then somebody else has to translate that into a concise organized plan."

His closest aides acknowledge that Craig is different. He can be moody. When he speaks, he's not always clear. Sometimes he selects the wrong word and leaves people confused. The other day, for example, he described himself as "fixated." When reminded of that, he was surprised and substituted the word "focused."

"He is not a great communicator," says Barksdale. "It takes me a while to understand what he means. He's the first to apologize for that. He says a lot of times he sometimes speaks in allegories and parables and in tangential ways, and you've got to really pay attention to know what he's talking about. He understands that he has a problem with that."

"I'm not the perfect employee of the company," Craig says. "I'm impatient at times . . . and certain people have trouble understanding what I'm saying. The more literally they listen to me, the more trouble they have understanding. I'm a conceptual thinker. I speak in conceptual rather than literal terms. Figuratively, rather than literally, if you'll take that. Therefore, a very literal person has a tough time understanding what I'm saying, but after a while, I can be impatient.

"I have a lot of flaws even within my own goals, you know, within the values that I would want to live by. I'm as hypocritical as the next person. But I do my best."

He is no ordinary businessman.

ON ANY GIVEN DAY, he might pick up a horn in his office and honk at people as a greeting. Or he might call employee Rick Hess with a question: "What are you doing this afternoon?"

"Nothing," Hess, a pilot and mechanic who's always on standby to go with Craig, might say.

"Let's go for a plane ride," Craig might reply. And off they go, with Craig, an avid pilot, usually at the controls, to the Olympic Peninsula or British Columbia.

It's been a few years since Craig and Hess went camping, but the routine was always the same: a search for some remote spot where Craig might paddle his kayak by himself, letting Hess fly ahead four or five miles.

Sometimes they slept in tents or in cabins; Craig complained about Hess' snoring. Craig did some of the cooking and often brought a squirt gun. He rarely talked business, shaved every day, read little and mainly talked about the scenery or airplanes. He took pride in knowing facts, such as the mean temperature at 7,000 feet of a certain Canadian mountain. He was finicky about leaving the campsite clean, recalls Hess.

"Heaven forbid if you drop a piece of paper and leave it," says Hess. "He'll rip you for weeks. Not that he's nasty, but he's that way. If he's walking in downtown Seattle and sees paper, he'll pick it up."

As one of the nation's wealthiest people, Craig has some pricey possessions. He owns a Falcon 900, an intercontinental luxury jet, and two small prop planes, a Super Cub and a Beaver. He also owns two yachts, one 77 feet and one 150 feet. Craig and his wife, Wendy, also a Stanford graduate, own property at Bliss Landing in Canada and around Santa Barbara, Calif. Their Seattle residence is the old Skinner home on Lake Washington. They have no children.

UNLIKE MANY chief executives who are slaves to their jobs, Craig takes plenty of time off.

In 1986, he took six months off during some of the biggest deals ever done by the company. He stayed in touch during that period, but allows aides near-total autonomy because he is very careful about whom he hires. Craig is famous for his soul-searching interviews with job candidates. Chief Financial Officer Peter Currie was hired after a six-hour interview.

Many times in his career, Craig has done what many thought was impossible or crazy. He's taken on more than $1 billion of high-cost junk bonds. But nobody, not even friends from childhood, has ever seen him rattled. Not even when his life was at risk.

Hamilton, the veep, remembers the time he and others were riding into Washington, D.C.'s National Airport in a plane piloted by Craig. As the plane made its approach to land, the control panel showed the landing gear wasn't locked down. They flew past the tower, where controllers said the gear looked OK but nobody was sure.

Most passengers were very nervous. One started talking rapidly, asking questions. Hamilton forced himself to stay quiet.

Emergency vehicles roared down to the runway, which blazed with lights. Craig brought the plane in and it landed without trouble. Everybody was relieved, but unnerved. Hamilton got out of the plane but went back later to get his briefcase. There in the plane, by himself, was Craig, calmly eating dinner. Hamilton was amazed that anyone could have the ability to hold down food that soon after a hair-raising experience.

"AREN'T YOU NERVOUS?" Hamilton recalls asking Craig. Craig ate some more.

"A little bit," Craig replied. "This will help me collect myself."

WITH AT&T AS AN ALLY, Craig is now moving more quickly toward his goal of a national network for a new kind of telephone - the go-anywhere "personal communicator."

Months after the AT&T deal was announced, he showed a visitor an EO 440, a device made by a company started by former employees of Apple Computer. The gadget looked like a tiny computer with a telephone attached to it. But it was more than either, a device that could fetch and sort messages, turn voice into text, recognize spoken commands, display a faxed image of an entire newspaper page, read handwriting, even give priorities to incoming messages or calls - thanks to an "intelligent" switching system run by McCaw.

Craig spoke of how the device would liberate people from the wire, "the leash that chokes us," in the most significant change to the telephone in 100 years. "It means we stop running for the phone and let the phone come to us."

The new phone, he added, will allow its user to think, gather information or send messages at a pace that suits his or her own personality, not a corporate model. It would destroy the idea of the office as a place with people and replace it with a new concept - the "virtual office," meaning anywhere.

As Craig kept speaking, his talk drifted away from telephones and focused on his philosophy of how people should live and work. Business in the future will have "whole-person thinking," he was saying. Once again, it was vintage Craig McCaw: the eccentric with a vision both strange and powerful. The king of cellular was getting deep.

"The level of change in technology now exceeds the ability of humans to cope with it," he was saying, as the sun headed across the Pacific on the way to tomorrow. Gadgets must serve people, he was saying. That's the future. "The rhythms of the body must be accommodated."