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Abbe Raven, the cable pioneer who rose from receptionist to CEO during her 33 years at A+E Networks, will retire from her post as chairman in February.

Raven disclosed her plan to shift to chairman emeritus status early next year in a heartfelt note sent to the company’s 1,200 staffers Sunday evening. The timing of her move will mark almost two years since Raven handed the prexy-CEO reins to her protege, Nancy Dubuc — a rare example of multi-generational female leadership at a sizable U.S. company, let alone a media powerhouse. Raven’s role as chairman will not be filled.

“It is hard to believe that in 1984, A&E started out with one programming network and today we have a portfolio in over 350 million households and 180 territories around the world together with successful ancillary businesses,” Raven wrote. “I remember being in the control room at the launch of A&E, Lifetime and History — like it was yesterday.”

Raven is without question one of the key architects of A+E Networks’ growth, particularly in the past 15 years. The company, a joint venture of Hearst Corp. and Disney, is home to some of cable’s most prosperous channels, but as a private concern it is shielded from quarterly earnings scrutiny. Under Raven and Dubuc, A+E has rapidly expanded its domestic and international portfolio, which generates an estimated $3.8 billion in annual revenue.

In her note to staffers, Raven recalled her unconventional entry into the cable business in 1981, when she made the trek to the lingerie department at Macy’s in New York to hand her resume to execs who were attending a promotional event for a new cable channel called Daytime. That moment of moxie got her foot in the door. Her natural exec skills and leadership qualities took her the rest of the way, culminating with her appointment as prexy-CEO in 2005.

Raven’s career has been a testament to the cable biz’s reputation as a nurturing environment for female executives, in part because it was in startup mode at a time when women with senior management ambitions were entering the workforce in greater numbers. Raven was among a group of femme pioneers, including USA Network founder Kay Koplovitz and longtime Nickelodeon chief Geraldine Laybourne, who were essential in driving the growth of cable in the 1980s and 1990s.

Raven recalled in her note the mentoring and support she received from her predecessor, Nick Davatzes (“No one person … did more to build this company, to create its culture and to guide and develop its people,” she wrote), and she hailed Dubuc as “a superb leader and a true visionary.” She also thanked her hard-working assistant of the past 10 years, Heather Graham.

Raven said that after stepping down she intends to continue to be involved in the television industry and will be active as a board member of corporate and non-profit orgs.

At present Raven is vice chairman of the board of National Cable and Telecommunications Assn., the National Assn. for Multi-ethnicity in Communications, and she sits on the advisory board of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Just last month, she joined the board of Pencil, a New York-based org that aims to foster collaborations between businesses and public schools.

For sure, after achieving so much during a career that began when Ronald Reagan was in his first term in the White House, Raven said she was ready for more downtime.

“I also look forward to more and longer walks on the beach with my husband, and to having the time to really explore the world,” she wrote.

Here is Raven’s full memo:

Thirty-three years ago, I dreamed of breaking into the almost newborn cable business. By sheer good fortune, I saw an announcement in the NY Times heralding a promotional event for the launch of a brand new cable service called DAYTIME. With resume in hand, I went to the event at – of all places – the lingerie department at Macy’s – to meet the new network’s programming executives. I jumped at the chance and with an eagerness to do anything—to copy scripts — to answer phones —to get coffee– indeed, to do whatever I was asked to help in the launch. And what a ride it has been!

And now, after nearly 33 years at A+E Networks, my true and dear professional home – I wanted all of you to know first– that I have decided to retire on February 2 as its Chairman. My years here have been truly rewarding and exciting. I was fortunate to grow up and be mentored through the programming and production ranks, and then to develop as an executive. Together with many of you, I have had the privilege of helping to build what I believe to be the finest, most distinctive and most successful brands on the media landscape.

It is hard to believe that in 1984, A&E started out with one programming network and today we have a portfolio in over 350 million households and 180 territories around the world together with successful ancillary businesses. I remember being in the control room at the launch of A&E, Lifetime and History — like it was yesterday.

When I started out xeroxing scripts and answering phones as a few dollars an hour assistant in 1982 – I would never have imagined I would become a manager, director, and senior executive–not to mention the President and CEO and then Chairman of a major media company. That was never my goal. My goal was to find something I would love to do, something I could contribute to in my own way–something to be part of. I instantly became passionate about this business and this company. I love that we get to tell stories that touch people’s lives – stories that can make a difference –and that resonate with people all around the world. It has been the thrill of a lifetime watching this company grow, lead and thrive.

One of the universally recognized hallmarks of A+E Networks that has made me so proud has been our unique culture and our incredible people. It has been a testament to this organization that for over three decades we have consistently attracted and developed the finest talent in order to compete in the marketplace and to succeed. No one person, since birth of this company, did more to build this company, to create its culture and to guide and develop its people than my predecessor, mentor, and dear friend, Nick Davatzes.

We all owe a great debt to Nick and the company continues to reflect his commitment, his leadership, his energy, and his principles. I am thrilled that Nancy, who has been my business partner, my successor and my dear friend, will be guiding you and this company into a future of great opportunities and challenges. Nancy is a superb leader and a true visionary. We also have the best and brightest management team in the business. I thank my Executive Assistant extraordinaire of ten years, Heather Graham, who has been my trusted and invaluable right hand. And, most important, A&E has the most talented, most dedicated employees in our industry—of this, I am most proud. I would like to thank both Nancy and the management team for their leadership, their friendship and their role in the company’s success. And I know they are going to keep growing this company to new heights.

This company and its people have been close to my heart for three decades. So many of you have become my extended family and good friends. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your commitment and for the contributions you make every day. We come together here from all walks of life to create our own brand of magic, and that magic has had, and will continue to have, a unique and lasting impact on popular culture.

I will miss seeing you here in the office on a daily basis. I will miss the daily excitement and energy that runs through our halls. It’s hard to say goodbye to the people and the company I love, the place I have been thinking about every day for most of my adult life. But it’s time. Time for me to explore new ideas, new interests, new callings—new chapters in my life. And as Chairman Emeritus of the company in the future, I look forward to serving the company when called upon as an ambassador and advisor.

And so, as I enter this next chapter, I envision a busy and fulfilling life, including continued involvement in the television industry and on corporate and non-profit boards and with issues I care about. And, of course, I also look forward to more and longer walks on the beach with my husband, and to having the time to really explore the world.
I will be rooting for each and every one of you all across this great company. Continue to make magic every day, be bold, make a difference, and have passion for and appreciate what you do. I wish each of you, and the great company that you serve, all the success in the world.

With great respect and affection,

Abbe