John Stankey has been promoted to CEO of AT&T, succeeding Randall Stephenson in the role as of July 1.
Stankey is a 35-year AT&T executive who was named chief operating officer last September. Stankey’s promotion was announced Friday morning as part of AT&T’s annual shareholders meeting in Dallas.
Stephenson said he would remain in the executive chairman role through January 2021. AT&T had already committed to separating the roles of chairman and CEO after the end of Stephenson’s tenure. AT&T said the board would elect an independent director later this year to succeed Stephenson as board chairman.
Noting Stankey’s long run with the company — most recently leading the integration of Time Warner assets following AT&T’s $85.4 billion acquisition in 2018 — Stephenson called his successor “uniquely positioned” to lead the telecommunications giant. AT&T as of Friday has a market cap of $211 billion, with 2019 revenue clocking in at $182 billion.
“Leadership succession is one of the Board’s most important responsibilities,” AT&T board member Beth Mooney said in a statement. “After an extensive evaluation, it was clear that John Stankey was the right person to lead AT&T into the future.”
In a video message to AT&T’s 248,000 employees worldwide, Stankey said, “You have inspired and supported me for nearly 35 years, and I couldn’t be more excited about tackling the challenges with you at one of the most dynamic and exciting times in our company’s history.”
Stephenson, 60, has served as CEO of AT&T for the past 13 years, capping a 38-year run with AT&T and its predecessors. During his tenure, one of the nation’s largest corporations has been transformed with a focus on marrying media and entertainment assets with the former Ma Bell’s wireless and cellular networks. On Stephenson’s watch, AT&T bet more than $130 billion on the acquisitions of DirecTV and Time Warner.
Stankey, 57, is a longtime lieutenant who has at various times had hands-on operational control of every aspect of AT&T’s businesses, including the integrations of Time Warner (now known as WarnerMedia) and DirecTV. His roles over the years have included serving as AT&T’s chief strategy officer, chief technology officer, CEO of AT&T Operations and CEO of AT&T Business Solutions.
“Randall has done an outstanding job as CEO in transforming AT&T into a leader in communications, technology, and media and entertainment,” said Matt Rose, AT&T’s lead independent board member. “His strong leadership and strategic investments during a period of unprecedented customer demand for mobile communications and premium entertainment have positioned the company extremely well for the years ahead.”
AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner lead to an inevitable clash of cultures as the new parent company made organizational and management changes, following the long slog to complete the deal that the Justice Department attempted to block with an anti-trust lawsuit.
Stankey’s no-nonsense leadership style as he took the reins of WarnerMedia was an awakening for many in Hollywood and New York. He earned the respect of many insiders by being a quick study in the business of content production and distribution. He galvanized the effort to bring WarnerMedia into the streaming arena in a huge way with the creation of HBO Max, which will offer a wide range of library and original content on top of the core HBO pay-TV service. HBO Max is set to bow May 27.
Stankey was appointed WarnerMedia CEO on the heels of AT&T’s victory in the anti-trust trial in June 2018. He was promoted to AT&T president-COO last September. Earlier this month, AT&T tapped former Hulu CEO Jason Kilar to replace Stankey in the WarnerMedia CEO role.
During AT&T’s shareholders meeting — which ran about 30 minutes — Stankey talked up HBO Max as an example of the kind of business opportunities that can be built on the back of AT&T’s recent acquisitions.
“We think the opportunity here is in the tens of millions of customers,” Stankey said of HBO Max. “We have very, very high expectations for this.”
Elliott Management, the activist investor that publicly slammed AT&T last September and questioned Stephenson’s strategic vision, gave its endorsement to the handoff to Stankey. AT&T and Elliott reached a true last October when AT&T articulated a three-year plan to focus on debt reduction and asset sales.
“Elliott supports John Stankey as AT&T’s next CEO,” Elliott said in a statement. “We have been engaged with the company throughout the search process, which was a robust one, including a range of highly qualified outside candidates and overseen by independent directors. We look forward to working with John as he begins his term as CEO.”