Editor’s note: Charles Davidson writes about the Atlanta tech scene each Monday. It is no stretch to call Campbell B. “Cam” Lanier III a legend in Georgia.

It’s not just that he’s made around $1 billion, maybe more, in the telecommunications business, though that’s obviously a big part of it. It’s the humble persona that’s cemented his near mythical status in Georgia finance and telecoms circles.

Lanier has made boatloads of money and helped to pioneer the long-distance phone business without craving the limelight – and without leaving his tiny hometown of West Point, GA. That’s where his great grandfather in 1896 opened The West Point Telephone and Electric Co. with 36 telephone customers after being enchanted with a telephone display he saw at the Cotton Exposition in Atlanta.

Lanier is famously averse to talking about himself. He doesn’t often grant interviews at all. (He didn’t return a call for this article.) He has always centered his numerous telecoms operations in West Point, or just across the state line in Valley, AL. He likes to hunt and fish and is said to care little for golf or other trappings of corporate titans.

Lanier talks business at the Starlite restaurant in downtown West Point. His companies hold annual meetings in places like The Cotton Duck in Valley.

His companies do other things too. They have been sold to MCI for $1.2 billion — (Telecom*USA in 1990) and Deutsche Telekom (Powertel last year for $2.2 billion). ITC Holding Co., the closely held holding company of which Lanier reportedly owns about 20 percent, held a 25 percent stake in Powertel when it was acquired by VoiceStream, which was subsequently swallowed by Deutsche Telekom.

Other Lanier investments include MindSpring Enterprises, in which ITC Holding put less than $10 million and later sold its shares for about $180 million; and HeadHunter.Net, the sale of which to Careerbuilder Inc. brought ITC about $50 million. ITC Holding also has stakes in private companies including Secureworks, an Atlanta software house; eCompanyStore, an online purveyor of trademarked company merchandise; and InterCall, which sells gear for conference calls and video conferences.

It’s an impressive record.

Telecom meltdown hits Lanier, too

But just as age is stalking even the great Michael Jordan, the battered telecoms market has bruised even the legendary Lanier and ITC Holding. First, ITC Deltacom, a publicly traded phone company formed in 1996 by ITC Holding, is struggling.

Things have gotten sufficiently bleak that in ITC Deltacom’s quarterly report of April 1, the company’s auditor, Arthur Andersen, expressed substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern. Andersen cited the company’s recurring losses and limited access to capital.

ITC Deltacom’s market value has slid to $17.5 million as of Friday, as its share price has plummeted 95 percent in the past year. The company had $723.9 million in debt and a working capital deficiency of $215.6 million as of Dec. 31. Lanier is vice chairman of ITC Deltacom, and in March last year ITC Holding pumped $150 million into the company.

Taking a hit in broadband, too

Meanwhile, another company in ITC Holding’s stable, Knology Broadband, had the same “going concern” warning in its latest SEC filings. Knology is still privately held, but files reports with the SEC because it has issued debt to the public.

In fact, Knology, which sells cable TV and Internet service in smaller markets such as Montgomery, AL., Augusta, GA. and Panama City, FL., was at Dec. 31, 2001 shouldering long-term debt of $412.7 million. The Company, according to its SEC filings, has accumulated losses of $337.6 million, and has a working capital deficit of $27 million.

These are not the first Lanier-affiliated companies to have trouble. He’s an investor in National Vision Associates, an ailing publicly traded chain of eyewear retailers with a paltry $3.5 million market value.

The difference is that Knology and ITC Deltacom, unlike National Vision, sprung directly from ITC Holding.

This in no way means Lanier has lost his touch. Rather, it’s fallout from a telecoms industry in which supply has dwarfed demand. And no one is spared — ask Global Crossing, Covad, and other one-time high fliers that have landed in bankruptcy.

“I still think he’s a legend,” Atlanta venture capitalist and former MindSpring executive Alan Taetle says of Lanier.

But even legends can’t defy gravity.