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NEW YORK — In a move to streamline the upper reaches of its exec structure, Time Warner Cable said prexy Thomas Baxter and vice chairman-chief operating officer John Billock will take early retirement and their positions combined into the single title of prexy-chief operating officer.

Mini-exodus of top-level execs from the nation’s No. 2 cabler also includes the departure of VP and chief marketing officer Chuck Ellis, although his exit is unrelated to the restructuring.

Baxter and Ellis will leave in March, while Billock will remain until a prexy-COO is tapped.

Soon after ascending to the top post in 2001, Time Warner Cable chairman-CEO Glen Britt recruited Baxter and Billock to help TW Cable master the new digital age and move more quickly to roll out services such as video-on-demand, cable telephony and high-speed Internet.

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Company insiders say with that buildout largely finished, it’s time to cut out a layer of upper management to improve communications between corporate and operating divisions. Both men decided to take early retirement, since neither intended to renew their five-year contracts, which are up in 2006.

Billock, 56, spent decades at sister Time Warner division HBO before arriving at TW Cable. Most recently, he had served as prexy of HBO’s U.S. network group.

Baxter, 58, was CEO of Internet company Audible before arriving at TW Cable; before that, he was prexy of Comcast from 1990-98.

TW Cable will commence a search for Ellis’ replacement. Ellis, 60, is not retiring; he will increase his involvement on various nonprofit boards and may pursue other business ventures.

Recently, cable company retained a consultant to conduct an internal review of its management structure.

Time Warner has long considered an IPO for its cable unit to give it its own stock currency with which to pursue acquisitions.

TW Cable and Comcast plan to make a joint bid for bankrupt Adelphia Communications. Final bids for the assets of the bankrupt cabler are due in the next few weeks.