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THE CALLBACK KID

ON A ROLL
From Hot Dog Buns to High-Tech Billions
By Howard Jonas
Viking 293pp $24.95

About halfway through his On a Roll, Howard Jonas, CEO of IDT Corp., tells how he got kicked out of a conference in Geneva of the International Telecommunication Union--the world's most prestigious gathering of phone industry executives. The scrappy Jonas was trying to publicize his company's international service, which uses new technology to undercut the world's telecom monopolies by 50% or more. With his rivals up in arms, he got into a tussle with the Swiss police, who proceeded to boot him out of the exhibit hall. But Jonas didn't give up so easily. He tried to reenter through the press room, only to have the police spot him and give chase. As they cornered him, he started throwing company brochures into the air and shouting to reporters: ''They're trying to shut me up. You've got to get the story out.'' Jonas was ejected, but his company got tons of publicity.

Clearly, Jonas is not your typical chief executive--and this is not your typical CEO autobiography. Jonas takes readers from his childhood in the Bronx, where he sold hot dogs on the street, through his success in building IDT into a sizable long-distance provider, international-calling player, and Internet upstart. But the story is unusual because Jonas is ever the outsider railing against the established giants. He didn't come out of AT&T or the Baby Bells. He's more comfortable in jeans than a suit. And he doesn't know the first thing about schmoozing telecom regulators.

Even his writing method is unusual. Unlike most other CEOs, Jonas didn't use a ghostwriter--for better and for worse: The writing is sometimes muddled, and a convoluted structure makes the book repetitive. There are also shameless promotions, such as an offer on the cover for $25 in free long-distance calls if you buy the book.

But the trade-off is Jonas' blunt, unrestrained voice telling fascinating stories. He writes about his early business ventures, including selling horoscopes and bonsai trees through the National Enquirer. He ran a handful of businesses while attending Harvard University. He even had to negotiate with mobsters interested in one of his successful mail-order companies.

Most interesting is Jonas' explanation of how, following in the tradition of much larger players such as MCI Communications Corp.'s Bill McGowan and MCI WorldCom Inc.'s Bernard J. Ebbers, he contributed to the fall of telecom monopolies, as the industry has moved slowly into an era of competition. Specifically, he describes fighting off AT&T and foreign players to offer a service known as ''callback.'' This technology lets someone call a U.S. party from abroad--where rates are high--but pay a discounted rate because the call is set up as one from the U.S. to the foreign country. Only after a lengthy battle at the Federal Communications Commission did Jonas get clearance to offer the service. The result? Customers can halve the cost of international calls.

Of course, Jonas' autobiography is part of a much larger tale about the opening of a high-cost, slow-moving industry. His perspective on the story is well worth reading.

BY PETER ELSTROM



RELATED ITEMS

PHOTO: Cover, ``On a Roll''

BOOK EXCERPT: Chapter One of ``On a Roll''


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Updated Dec. 10, 1998 by bwwebmaster
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