Randall Stephenson, the 47-year old chief operating officer of AT&T, was named on Friday to succeed Edward Whitacre as chairman and chief executive of the largest US telecommunications group.

Mr Stephenson will take charge on June 3 when Mr Whitacre, aged 65, retires after 44 years in the US telecommunications industry marking a defining moment for AT&T and the telecoms sector. “It’s a passing of the baton,” said Todd Rosenbluth, a New York-based analyst with Standard & Poor’s.

Mr Whitacre, a 6ft4in Texas native with a pronounced Texas drawl and a big smile, announced the handover to shareholders at the company’s annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas. “It is amazing how far we’ve come as a company and as an industry,” he said.

Mr Whitacre will receive a retirement package totalling $158.5m according to the company’s proxy filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission – one of the largest pension packages ever unveiled.

In addition, he will receive $24,000 a year in benefits to cover car costs and $6,500 a year for home security, and will be entitled to use the company jet for 10 hours a month.

Mr Whitacre began his career in 1964 at Southwestern Bell and took over as chief executive of the old SBC Communications group in 1990.

He is widely credited with transforming SBC, renamed after it acquired AT&T in 2005, into an industry powerhouse through a string of bold acquisitions culminating in the $68bn purchase of BellSouth, which closed at the end of last year.

The BellSouth acquisition consolidated AT&T position as the largest US telecoms carrier ahead of New York-based Verizon Communications and gave AT&T full control of the Cingular Wireless joint venture, the nation’s largest mobile network operator.

Mr Stephenson’s appointment as chief executive had been anticipated. Mr Whitacre said in 2004 that he was among candidates to succeed him, and Mr Stephenson, who was appointed to the board in 2005, has been widely credited with helping ensure that AT&T’s purchases have been integrated smoothly and successfully – in contrast to many other industry mergers.

As part of Mr Whitacre’s inner circle of senior executives, Mr Stephenson has been intimately involved in plotting AT&T’s strategy - including its entry into the video business through its U-verse IPTV rollout - and in the execution of that strategy.

During recent keynote speeches at the CTIA Wireless show in Orlando, Florida and other events, he has made it clear that he fully supports the current strategy and believes that AT&T can generate new growth through its wireless, broadband and IPTV businesses while also expanding its global operations.

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