"My life was settling down. I had a great job. I was married. We had a couple of kids. There wasn’t anything to complain about," says George Bell, president and CEO of Excite@Home, the search-engine and broadband Internet company.

As a documentary producer for ABC and National Geographic during the 1980s, Bell, 43, had spent his time on such projects as traveling to Africa to shoot films and climbing Mount Everest (four times). When the constant travel began to wear him down, he left to join Times-Mirror’s magazine group, rising through the management ranks over a five-year period ending in 1995.

When he was senior vice president at Times Mirror Magazines, he received a call from a headhunter "insisting I meet some people who had a system that allowed big companies to search their own databases, which they couldn’t do at the time," says Bell, who spoke at Wharton Feb. 17 as part of the Zweig Executive Dinner Series. "I had no technical background. I was never a CEO and I had never managed money or done a P&L statement.

"I’m 37 and I fly out to Silicon Valley in my best CEO suit and tie and I get interviewed by these 21-year-olds in dude shorts and basketball high-top sneakers. It was a whole new way of doing things."

Bell ended up taking the job, becoming the 23nd employee of what was then Architext Software. The next year it became Excite, the second-largest search engine after Yahoo, and last year, in a $7.2 billion deal, it merged with @Home, a broadband provider of Internet service. The company is based in Redwood City, Calif.

Bell threw out some impressive figures on his company’s progress since his arrival in January 1996. From zero revenues then, it reached $400 million in revenues by December 1999. It had 23 employees housed in 500 sq. ft. of real estate at the beginning of 1996 and now has 2,300 employees in 700,000 sq. ft. of office space. Initially, Excite had 150,000 page views a day, which Bell considered quite good at the time. Now it is up to 123 million page views daily.

It would seem that Bell’s seat-of-the-pants, on-the-job-training as CEO has worked out well.

A native of Bryn Mawr, Pa., and a graduate of Episcopal Academy and Harvard College, Bell talked about the future of Internet-based information communications. He says Excite@Home is constantly rethinking its position in the marketplace. While it will still be a search-engine, the company has stopped trying to beat out Yahoo for first-place in that category and is working instead to give its users more personalized information than does Yahoo, which Bell describes as a more generalized search engine.

In the @Home, or broadband, part of the business, the main thrust continues to be cable modem connections, although Bell is also moving the company towards providing DSL phone connections where applicable and convenient.

When asked by a student about his new former ally, now arch-competitor, America Online (AOL was once the largest corporate stockholder of Excite, with 14% of the pre-merger company.), Bell says he is skeptical of AOL’s merger with Time-Warner. "I think it’s an awful lot of money to pay for a good cable base," he notes. "If AOL wanted to buy content, they could have bought EMI, CBS, Viacom and Disney, all together, for less money than they paid for Time-Warner."

The deal seems to have been for the 20 million cable homes Time-Warner has, Bell says, which are not worth the billions in stock AOL put out.

On the other hand, he adds, the merger keeps companies like Excite@Home on its toes. And that is one of many lessons he has learned over the past four years in Silicon Valley. Bell went on to share other lessons gleaned from his on-the-job training with an Internet company.

First off, he says, the new economic paradigm is that you can’t rely on old skills, but on life-time learning. Don’t try merely to preserve your job. Make sure the chaos of the ever-changing marketplace is working for you. Always be learning.

Another lesson: "Work scared, all the time." Bell reiterated a long-held Silicon Valley line, that if you commit to a fast-moving tech company, you had better be ready to do little else except work. On the other hand, Excite@Home, like other demanding companies, does try to inject some fun into the 14- or 15-hour workdays. "Fun" means sports games on the company campus and support for in-house partying. In addition, Bell notes that everyone at Excite@Home has stock options and thus can be an owner-employee. Given that situation, he feels it is unfair to one’s fellow owner-employees not to work hard.

Bell also says the Internet has led him to realize that negotiating and making decisions have to be done quickly, even at the expense of making a mistake. Being late, he said, is far worse than being wrong, especially only slightly wrong, in the quickly changing Internet economy.

Also important for companies like his are hiring decisions. Some new hires with great experience in old-line businesses end up being out the door within six months, says Bell. "I’ve got to tell people in their 40s who have 15 or 20 years of sound business experience to check their resumes at the door at a company like ours. I tell them things have changed, that a 22-year-old may well be right and you, with all your experience, may have to listen to him or her."

Finally, says Bell, in the new economy the successful worker will have to depend on his or her spirit within. He put up on a screen his favorite quote from Abraham Lincoln: "If in the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, if I have lost every other friend on Earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me."

"In the end," Bell concludes, "you have to trust yourself."