AT&T Names John Stankey as CEO, Randall Stephenson to Retire

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John Stankey

The WarnerMedia chief, who joined the telco in 1985, will become head of the conglomerate July 1.

AT&T's CEO succession is underway. 

Randall Stephenson, the teleco's chairman and CEO, is set to retire after 38 years with the company and John Stankey, the current leader of WarnerMedia, will take the top job as president and CEO. The transition will happen by July 1.

"I'm honored to be elected the next CEO of AT&T, a company with a rich history and a bright future,” said Stankey in a statement Friday. "We have a strong company, leading brands and a great employee team, which I'm privileged to lead. I couldn't be more excited about the new opportunities we have to serve our customers and communities and create value for our shareholders," he added.

The announcement was made during AT&T's virtual shareholders meeting Friday.

Stephenson will have served 13 years as AT&T's chairman and CEO, and will retire as CEO, while remaining in the executive chairman post until January 2021.

Stankey taking the CEO post completes a succession at AT&T that began with its board of directors in 2017. Stankey, 57, became president and COO of AT&T October 2019.

That promotion was widely seen as positioning him as the eventual successor to Stephenson. He joined AT&T in 1985 and has served in various leadership roles, including corporate strategy and M&A; media and entertainment; operations, IT and technology; consumer mobility, broadband and TV; and enterprise business.

"I congratulate John, and I look forward to partnering with him as the leadership team moves forward on our strategic initiatives while navigating the difficult economic and health challenges currently facing our country and the world. John has the right experiences and skills, and the unflinching determination every CEO needs to act on his convictions," Stephenson said Friday in a statement.

Stankey's promotion to the top was welcomed by activist shareholder Elliott Management, which last year acquired AT&T stock and called for changes at the telecom and entertainment giant, arguing that its acquisition strategy in particular had hurt the company's shares and performance.

"Elliott supports John Stankey as AT&T's next CEO. 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," Elliot said in a statement Friday.

During the shareholders meeting, Stankey addressed his promotion directly to investors: "To my co-workers, I can honestly say I didn't see this coming 35 years ago when I joined the company handling customer requests for phone service. It's only possible because of the many high-quality individuals I've been fortunate to work with over the course of my career."

Also during the shareholders meeting, AT&T execs fielded questions about the telco and media giant, including on HBO Max, which will enter the streaming wars May 27 amid the shutdown brought about by the novel coronavirus outbreak, and bring with it 10,000 hours of library programming from across the WarnerMedia portfolio, including Friends and The Big Bang Theory.

"When we acquired WarnerMedia, we acquired an amazing library of content, an amazing capability for producing premium content and John Stankey and his team are building a direct-to-consumer business where all of that content will be curated and assembled and delivered to our customers and streamed directly to them," Stephenson said.

The $15-per-month HBO Max offering will serve up the entire HBO experience supplemented with movies and TV shows from the Warner Bros. library, as well as a handful of new original series.

Stankey talked about differences between HBO Max and HBO and Netflix, key competitors to the new streaming platform for consumer dollars: "It's the same as HBO and twice as much content and (we've) put a fabulous customer experience around it that you can take anywhere you want to go to consume and enjoy that content at whatever time you want to watch it."

Stephenson also defended CNN against claims of political bias in its 24/7 cable news coverage. "Whether it's CNN, Fox News or ABC, these are really unique businesses. They're all members of the press and all of these entities are afforded protections under the First Amendment of our Constitution ... And if there's no free press, there are no free people. The press and CNN have a very specific role and that is to hold those in power accountable, and that includes CEOs like myself and includes politicians," he told investors.

AT&T execs, having unveiled their coronavirus earnings fallout with the company's latest financial results Wednesday, addressed questions about AT&T liquidity and balance sheet strength. "Your company is in pretty solid shape and our balance sheet is strong, our cash position is strong, the dividend is secure ... the capital structure is in a good place," Stephenson said.