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WELL leader to step down

Maria Wilhelm, leader of The WELL, a service she once tried to buy, is stepping down as president.

Maria Wilhelm, leader of The WELL, a service she once tried to buy, is stepping down as president.

Wilhelm didn't so much lead as she did oversee the San Francisco Bay Area-based online community credited as the birthplace of "virtual community."

So tightly woven is the community of some 11,000 people that Wilhelm, a veteran journalist who served as president for 20 months, wanted to make sure that members got the news of her departure online before anyone else.

Last spring, Wilhelm started negotiating to buy the online community but could not reach a deal with owner Bruce Katz.

She now will become managing partner of Digital Strategies, a Los Angeles-based consulting management and venture finance firm that specializes in new media. Wilhelm moved to Southern California after getting married in October.

Robert McNeal, who last served as senior vice president and chief operating officer of the show-business news site Entertainment Drive, will serve as the other managing partner for the company, which helps businesses develop Web strategies.

Wilhelm, who left Pathfinder to join the WELL, helped launch WELL spinoff Well Engaged, which creates and runs online conferencing software.

The WELL has steadfastly held onto its reputation of incubating intellectually and often emotionally stimulating discussions, with a fiercely loyal user base. But the veteran service has remained steadily at 11,000 members while other services have shot past it.

While the WELL's intention was never to become an online giant, stagnant growth is not a healthy sign for any company. At the same time, it has been one of the few services to successfully charge a subscription fee: members pay $10 per month to belong to the WELL.

And when it comes to making important decisions, the membership usually is quite vocal about them. If the WELL had to be compared to another service, perhaps the best way to describe it would be to cast it as America Online's polar opposite.

"I respect the WELL with a depth and a manner that I can't even describe," Wilhelm said. "I think it is the most unique and extraordinary community on Earth and I couldn't have been more honored to be associated with it for the 20 months I was."

"I don't want to be hyperbolic about the impact Maria's departure may have," said Ed Long, director of business development for the WELL and Wilhelm's long-time friend and associate. "We had a president who had a unique combination of business savvy, journalistic background, and a real understanding of community and its power."