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Not long ago, James Robinson III was the toast of New York business.

There was Felix Rohaytn, the Tisch brothers, and there was Southern charmer Jim Robinson, chairman-ceo of American Express Co.

Petitioners from the ranks of the most commanding corporate circles as well as the faceless sea of powerbroker wanna-bes fought to see him.

Now-more than a year after being ousted from American Express by a board grown impatient with his plan for a highly diversified financial services company-Mr. Robinson finds that it is he who is the petitioner.

At age 58 and still plenty feisty, he is trying to make a deal with a group of young information superhighway turks.

Convinced they have the next Big Idea, the young turks-there are five of them, all under 35-are driving a hard bargain. Still, Mr. Robinson remains intrigued.

The company is called Interactive Connection. The idea is a new online service, available over the Internet and by modem, that provides catalogs, travel information and advertising.

"I went over and met with them," said Mr. Robinson, who now heads J.D. Robinson Inc., a private New York company investing in high-tech and interactive ventures.

"I have been reviewing their business plans and giving them my views on some of the things they've been wrestling with, and talking to them about potential investments."

So far there is no deal on the table. But people close to Interactive Connection say Mr. Robinson made an offer for part of the company that was rebuffed-it was too low. Now, he is reportedly trying to drum up additional investor interest.

Neither party will say how much of the company Mr. Robinson wants to purchase, except that it would be a minority interest.

The dollar amount is said to be under $1 million, mere pocket change for a man who made more than double that in salary alone in 1992, his last year with American Express.

Whether or not Mr. Robinson invests, observers say Interactive Connection has hit on something that could be a viable competitor to the established online players.

Through digital compression technology, Interactive Connection can simultaneously deliver full-color, near-photo quality images and text at high speeds over phone lines. The result is faster access to information, and thus lower online phone charges.

Other online services, such as CompuServe and Prodigy, are adding photographic images, but can send only a few compressed files that must be accessed separately from the text.

"No one's really figured out how to get quality pictures through the digital online network," said Lorraine Sileo, who follows online services for SIMBA Information/Communication Trends, Wilton, Conn. "Prodigy's just testing it, and they don't even have it widespread yet .*.*. If what [Interactive Connection claims] is true, I would say it definitely will set them apart."

What also may set Interactive Connection apart is its link to the Internet, arguably one of the hottest-and most treacherous-marketing venues today.

The Internet audience is demographically desirable-techno-savvy and mostly higher income-but notoriously anti-commercial.

For $12 a year and 10 cents a minute, Interactive Connection offers access to five new venues: World Travel Online, World Publications Online, World Sports Online, World Entertainment Online and the Interactive Shopping Plaza.

Content providers range from the British Tourist Authority to "The Ultimate Guide to Independent Record Labels and Artists" to the Hooter's restaurant chain. Crane Media Sales, a New York cable TV rep firm, is courting other advertisers.

The British Tourist Authority is offering its brochure collection online, while Hooter's and 47 Street Photo display merchandise from their catalogs. Subscribers can use Interactive Connection's fax-on-demand service to order products.

Mr. Robinson's interest in the entrepreneurs behind Interactive Connection may stem as much from his heart as his financial instincts.

"I run into a lot of different kinds of approaches to start-up situations. I was impressed with the pragmatic approach this group has taken, where they actually have business in hand," he said.

As an investor, "what you're looking for is instincts as well as well-rounded bios of the team," Mr. Robinson said. "It looks like they have a balance."

If balance is a key ingredient for success, then Interactive Connection has it. Dan Glass, 27, director of travel marketing, is a former travel agent. Howard Weinberg, 33, a practicing attorney in Miami, is general counsel and executive director of World Sports Online. Howard Koval, 32, managed his own cable ad rep firm before signing on as director of new business development.

The 27-year-old president and 31-year-old exec VP, who each own 50% of the company, still have full-time jobs in the TV industry, and won't reveal their names publicly.

None has any work experience in online services.

Mr. Robinson cold-called Interactive Connection a few months ago after reading about the company in an industry newsletter.

For Interactive Connection's president, it was a dream come true. But he almost passed it off as a joke.

"One of my close friends had called me and left a message on the machine saying, `This is John Malone calling from TCI. We're very interested.' When we heard the next day, `This is Jim Robinson calling. I'm very interested in speaking with you,' I thought it was my friend Brian calling me," said the executive. "I was kind of in awe."

What followed was a whirlwind of meetings, power lunches and countless late nights drawing up financial papers.

"We've handed over a business plan, and a revised business plan, and things certainly look good," said Mr. Glass. "We just need the signature."

One investor Mr. Robinson is said to have courted is financier Ronald Perelman. Mr. Robinson sits on the board of Mr. Perelman's New World Television production company.

"Certainly introducing them to other people would be part of what I would expect to do" as an investor in Interactive Connection, Mr. Robinson said, although he said he hadn't talked to Mr. Perelman.

Mr. Perelman couldn't be reached.

Interactive Connection isn't the only start-up Mr. Robinson is interested in. He said he's investigating a company that makes "client-server software packages" and another working on "platform development for desktop communications devices."

Joshua Harris, president of consultancy Jupiter Communications Co., New York, has been advising Mr. Robinson on the Interactive Connection deal.

"He's got good gut, and his gut's telling him there's something here," Mr. Harris said. "I told Jim it's a good idea. It's not like he would grieve over the amount of money they're dealing with. To him it's significant, but it's not Jim Robinson bucks, so to speak."

Others want to latch onto Interactive Connection, too. Crane Media Sales handles ad sales for fledgling cable networks and is eager to package ads on start-ups like the Inspiration Channel and Classical Music Television with an online presence.

"The Internet gets 300,000 or 400,000 users a day. That's a tremendous number compared to the number of viewers of some of the channels I'm working with," said President Albert Crane, who is providing office space for the new service at his Madison Avenue headquarters. "So we put the two together and do some sort of creative campaign."

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