Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Qwest's Notebaert to retire

Ameritech, Tellabs alum to step down after 5-year tenure
By Jon Van (Chicago Tribune)

After five years in Denver running Qwest Communications, former Chicago telecommunications executive Richard Notebaert said Monday he's looking forward to his next act.

Notebaert, 59, will step down as chief executive and chairman of Qwest Communications International Inc. once his board finds a replacement. Notebaert took the job five years ago this month when Qwest faced an accounting scandal and bankruptcy under the leadership of Joseph Nacchio.

"I'm very proud of the past five years," Notebaert told a New York City conference held by Bear Stearns. He expects Qwest's board "will move quickly on my replacement. I'm sure they have a list."

It won't be Notebaert's first stab at retirement. He left Ameritech at the end of 1999 when the Chicago-based phone giant was purchased by SBC Communications. That retirement, which lasted about a year, ended when Notebaert took the helm at Tellabs Inc., the network equipment firm based in Naperville. He confided at the time that months away from work bored him.

Asked at the New York analyst conference why he's chosen now to retire, especially after a "turnover" of Qwest's top management, Notebaert bristled and denied any turnover. Oren G. Shaffer, vice chairman and chief financial officer, resigned in the spring and Barry K. Allen, executive vice president of operations, will leave the end of this month.

"That's not the senior team," said Notebaert. "It's just two people."

Shaffer and Allen were among the Ameritech alumni Notebaert recruited to help him restore confidence in Qwest management after the accounting scandal. Notebaert told analysts that Qwest has a depth of management capabilities and that he wouldn't leave the company if it wasn't in a good position to succeed in the future.

Last year Qwest posted its first profits and is on track to continue growing profitability, Notebaert said. The company's share price dropped 81 cents, to $9.36, on news of Notebaert's retirement plans.

Besides straightening out the financial mess he inherited, Notebaert worked at changing the culture at Qwest, which was formed by the merger of a broadband long-distance carrier with the old US West Bell operating company. Even as he trimmed cost and personnel, Notebaert sought to instill pride among Qwest employees and a zeal to serve customers.

"I feel very good about where we are," Notebaert said Monday.

Now that Qwest is profitable, this may be a good time for new leadership, said Umesh Ramakrishnan, vice chairman of the executive recruiting firm CTPartners.

"Dick did a great job of stabilizing the company," he said, "but now with cable TV operators encroaching on its business, Qwest needs someone who can take it into a new environment."

Notebaert's successor should be someone familiar with converged technologies rather than a traditional phone executive, Ramakrishnan said.

In his retirement announcement, Notebaert said "the time has come for me to spend more time with family and focus on other commitments."

When he moved to Denver five years ago, Notebaert kept his North Side condo. A board member of Aon Corp., he regularly comes to Chicago for board meetings and some events at a natural history museum located near his home and named for his wife. Earlier this year, Notebaert was named chairman of the board of trustees at the University of Notre Dame.

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