Ed Whitacre, AT&T’s chief executive, has ridden a wave of mergers and acquisitions to the top of the global telecoms industry. His latest transaction will create the world’s biggest telecoms carrier and consolidate his reputation as a dealmaker.

In the process Whitacre, a Texan with a reputation as a conservative business manager with outspoken views, has built Cingular Wireless into the nation’s largest mobile carrier and restored the AT&T name – one of the most widely recognised corporate brands – to its former pre-eminence.

After joining the former Southwestern Bell Telephone company in 1963 as facility engineer, Whitacre moved up the executive ladder during a period of technological and regulatory change to become SBC’s chairman and chief executive at the start of the 1990s.

Since then he has led SBC – one of the “Baby Bells” formed out of the court mandated breakup of the former AT&T – through an era of exceptional growth and merger and acquisition activity that has reshaped the US telecoms landscape.

Those deals included the purchases of Pacific Telesis (1997), SNET (1998), Comcast Cellular (1999) and Ameritech (1999) during the 1990s and the formation of the Cingular Wireless’s joint venture with BellSouth earlier this century.

Whitacre anticipated the importance of wireless as a growth driver to offset the growing pressure on traditional fixed telecoms. He was also quick to appreciate the importance of providing broadband internet service as part of a bundle of consumer services that would make it easier to win and retain customers. AT&T is the biggest DSL operator in the US, offering services from $15 a month cheaper than most dial-up services.

But perhaps his greatest coup was persuading his counterpart at BellSouth, Duane Ackerman, to raise Cingular’s bid for AT&T Wireless in February 2004 – a move that trumped a competing offer from Britain’s Vodafone.

If it had been successful, Vodafone’s bid would have freed Verizon Communications to buy out Vodafone’s 45 per cent stake in Verizon Wireless, then the largest US mobile carrier – a strategic objective that Verizon has yet to accomplish.

Whitacre followed the AT&T Wireless deal with a surprise $16bn bid for AT&T, a move that again outflanked Verizon and triggered Verizon’s bid battle with Qwest Communications for MCI.

The AT&T deal closed late last year with SBC adopting the AT&T name and set the stage for what Whitacre now describes as “the next logical move’ – the acquisition of BellSouth that was announced on Sunday.

In a recent interview with the FT, Whitacre made it clear that he believed further industry consolidation was inevitable as telecoms companies managed the transition to internet protocol-based technology and geared up for the battle with cable operators to dominate the digital home.

“No industry has been as affected by technological change as the telecommunications industry,” he said. “It threw out all the business models – you have to be a survivor.”

He confirmed that SBC had looked at potential overseas acquisitions in the past but noted that there were a lot of “roadblocks”.

For Whitacre, who had been expected to retire later this year, the BellSouth deal represents the pinnacle of achievement. It also means he is likely to stay on at the telecoms giant he has built at least until the BellSouth deal is completed – perhaps a year from now.

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