AT&T CEO sets surprise June exit

Empire-building Whitacre appears ready to call it a career

AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre has announced his retirement from the international telecommunications giant, reportedly with one year remaining on his employment contract. He will leave behind a company which, in many ways, resembles the AT&T he joined when he began his career in the early 1960s, albeit by a very circuitous route.

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As chief executive of SBC, Whitacre engineered several takeovers which turned the regional telephone monopoly into the successor of the original "Ma Bell" institution which for decades controlled virtually all wireline voice and data communications in the US. Forced to divest its local telephone company interests in the early 1980s, what remained of AT&T maintained a strong presence in business telecommunication and infrastructure, but struggled with its consumer relevance in the broadband era, acquiring wireless and cable television assets only to sell them off again.

SBC and Verizon (itself the merger of the former Bell Atlantic with non-Bell telephone provider GTE) have been the major successes of the post-monopoly era. Under Whitacre's guidance from 1990 on, SBC grew to such a dominant scale that it was able to swallow its weakened former parent and transfer the brand standard from New Jersey to Texas. Most recently, Whitacre oversaw the acquisition of BellSouth, furthering its local telephone footprint but more importantly giving AT&T complete control over the Cingular wireless service, rebranded under the AT&T moniker.

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Whitacre will be succeeded by COO Randall Stephenson on June 3. Incoming CEO Stephenson is also an SBC veteran, having joined the Southwestern Bell operating company just two years before the court-ordered breakup of AT&T and remaining with what became SBC and ultimately AT&T once more.

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