AUSWR
The Association of U S West Retirees
 

 

 

Notebaert's Qwest accomplished
By Tom McGhee, Staff Writer
Denver Post 
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Last month, a schoolteacher rose at a Qwest shareholders' meeting to ask chief executive Richard Notebaert if he was willing to use $10 million of his own money to replace reduced life-insurance benefits for Qwest retirees.

"No," Notebaert said flatly.

The moment marked an unusual fissure in the veneer of affability projected by Notebaert, the Midwestern executive imported in 2002 to rescue Qwest from the brink of bankruptcy.  Five years later, Notebaert is credited not only with doing that, but also with restoring profitability and credibility to Denver's once-traumatized telecommunications giant.

He did so, both allies and opponents agree, with a tough and sometimes ruthless approach to cost-cutting and debt reduction, using methods forged during successful if sometimes stormy terms heading big Chicago telecommunications companies.

Notebaert, 59, announced Monday that he would retire as soon as a replacement can be found.

In his time at Qwest, Notebaert earned about $103 million while selling Qwest's Dex directory and wireless assets, cutting more than 12,000 jobs and trimming retiree benefits in order to whittle down daunting debt.

No stranger to such tactics, he had encountered criticism in past leadership jobs for selling Chicago-based Ameritech to an out-of-town company and later laying off nearly 40 percent of the workforce at Tellabs as the telecommunications equipment supplier struggled through a downturn.

At Qwest, his relationship with the company's retirees has been particularly bumpy.  Qwest cut their health-care and life-insurance benefits, prompting the head of the Association of US West Retirees once to call him a traitor.

"He did a great job in turning around the company financially," said Nelson Phelps, executive director of the retirees' association.  "But he has been disingenuous and has made his own personal profit income on retirees' backs."

Yet he led a financial recovery at a company that was $26 billion in debt, scorned by Wall Street and losing millions on its fiber-optic and Internet operations.

His personal charm and devotion to community involvement made him the antithesis of predecessor Joe Nacchio, a sometimes abrasive CEO who de-emphasized community interaction after Qwest merged with regional Bell phone company USWest.

An impact on Denver

Elbra Wedgeworth, who headed the effort to bring the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential nominating convention to Denver, found Notebaert eager to help in raising the needed money.

"When I went to his office, I said 'Do you have $40 million on you?' and he said, 'No, but I can help you get it."'

Notebaert, who led Chicago's host committee for the Democratic National Convention in 1996, has acted as a coach and cheerleader for Denver's effort, Wedgeworth said.  The company has pledged $6 million in cash and services.

He began his telecommunications career washing repair trucks while in college and eventually took the helm at Ameritech, where he guided its merger with SBC Communications.

He followed his retirement from Ameritech with a job steering Naperville, Ill.-based Tellabs.  As the market for telecom equipment faltered in 2000, Notebaert shuttered plants, dropped new product lines and slashed jobs.

Despite deploying similarly tough tactics at Qwest, Notebaert's relations with the Communications Workers of America, which represents Qwest employees, have been cordial, said Annie Hill, vice president of CWA District 7.

"He was overall good to work with.  There were some things we agreed on and some we couldn't work out," Hill said.

Government officials who worked with Notebaert said his retirement will be a loss to Denver.

"You think back to the old Bell system, there was a community orientation of the executives," said Tom Clark, executive vice president with the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.  "Dick brought that good part of the old Bell system back to Denver."

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper calls Notebaert smart, convincing, charming and always willing to help.

"He is very direct," Hickenlooper said.  "We were sharing a beer last week and talking about some policy issue around communications that we disagreed on.  I told him 'I can't get that policy to fit in with the way I think,' and he just smiled and said, 'We will just have to change the way you think."'

Notebaert wasn't successful in changing the mayor's mind that time.  But Hickenlooper said Notebaert always makes him think.

"He is one of the smartest guys in the room all the time," Hickenlooper said.  "He is somebody who has remarkably sound judgment and has been a great resource for me."

Notebaert had a reputation for civic involvement when he arrived in Denver.  Among other positions, he is chairman of the board of trustees of the University of Notre Dame.

In Denver, he sits on the board of the Denver Center of the Performing Arts and is one of the chairpersons on "A+ Citizens Committee," a group that is looking for solutions to a building crisis facing Denver Public Schools.

Notebaert hasn't said whether he will leave Denver when his time at Qwest is finished.  He has a house here and has not indicated any desire to relinquish his position on the schools committee, said Qwest spokesman Nicholas Sweers.

Staff writer Tom McGhee can be reached at 303-954-1671 or tmcghee@denverpost.com.

http://origin.denverpost.com/business/ci_6117259