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AT&T CEO Whitacre to Retire

AT&T chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre announced his resignation effective June 3, 2007. His successor in both positions will be the company's current COO, Randall Stephenson.

Whitacre's contract with the company wasn't set to expire until April of next year. A company spokesman refused to comment on why the timing was moved up, other than to say that Whitacre "made the decision following a long, very distinguished career."

Ed Whitacre
Ed Whitacre
Source: AT&T

During his tenure, Whitaker led the transformation of Southwestern Bell Telephone, the smallest of the telcos spun out of the 1984 breakup of AT&T, into the world's largest communications company by revenue; 2006 pro forma revenue at AT&T amounted to more than $117 billion.

The most recent acquisitions made under his aegis include deals with AT&T Wireless, AT&T Corp. and BellSouth.

Stephenson, who lauded Whitacre as "an extraordinary leader," pledged continuity with his predecessor's policies. "We're dedicated to the same vision, strategy and focus," he said in a statement.

Stephenson's immediate challenge will be to fend off network neutrality legislation while continuing to pursue AT&T's strategy of delivering next-generation television services.

Whitacre was not without his critics. In the company's most recent proxy statement, a shareholder resolution was presented that sought to limit executive compensation. The resolution's authors noted that Whitacre's total compensation over the previous five years amounted to $85.2 million, while shareholder returns were a negative 40.3 percent over the same period.

Whitacre also became a lightening rod for supporters of network neutrality legislation because of comments he made confirming their fears about his company's plans to create a two-tiered Internet.

Cowen and Company analyst Shaun Parvez said Stephenson was the right choice to succeed Whitacre. "He was the right-hand guy behind all the things the company has been lauded for," Parvez told internetnews.com.

Parvez said there are two possible explanations for Whitacre's accelerated departure, both related to the rumored acquisition by AT&T of Alltel .

Either the acquisition isn't in the offing, in which case there's no reason to hang around. Or the acquisition will take place, and Whitacre is leaving soon because he "wants Stephenson to have one good deal under his belt," Parvez said.