Ackerman, F. Duane 1942–
F. Duane Ackerman
Chairman and chief executive officer, BellSouth Corporation
Born: 1942, in Plant City, Florida.
Education: Rollins College, BS, 1964; MS, 1970; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MBA, 1978.
Family: Married Kappy (maiden name unknown); children: four.
Career: Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company, 1964–1971, various customer service and other positions; 1971–1974, division plant manager; 1974–1975, general personnel supervisor; 1975, assistant vice president, plant department; 1978–1979, general commercial and marketing manager; 1979–1983, vice president; BellSouth Corporation, 1983–1985, vice president, corporate planning and development; BellSouth Services, Incorporated, 1985–1989, executive vice president for marketing, network, and planning; BellSouth Corporation, 1989–1991, vice chairman, finance and administration; 1991–1995, vice chairman and group president; BellSouth Telecommunications, 1991–1992, president and chief operating officer; 1992–1995, president and chief executive officer; BellSouth Corporation, 1995–1997, vice chairman of the board and chief operating officer; 1997–1998, president and chief executive officer; 1998–, chairman and chief executive officer.
Awards: Honorary doctorate, Rollins College, 2000; Hall of Fame, J. Mack Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University, 2001.
■ F. Duane Ackerman helped to steer BellSouth Corporation through both divestiture and deregulation to make the firm one of the more profitable telephone companies in the United States. He began working in customer service with Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph in 1964, and he moved steadily upward through the company ranks. When the so-called
"Baby Bell" regional telephone companies were divested from AT&T in 1984, Ackerman became a leading figure in Bell-South. He served in a variety of upper management positions before taking over as president and chief executive officer in 1997. Known for his low-key demeanor, Ackerman often made trips to the field, riding in company trucks to stay in touch with his company and its customers.
EDUCATION AND EARLY CAREER
Ackerman grew up in Plant City, Florida, a small city east of Tampa. He enrolled at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where he studied physics. He joined Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company, a part of the "Baby Bell" system of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) in 1964. Ackerman's first job with Southern Bell was in the customer service department, where he fielded customer complaints. His first five jobs with the company were related to customer service, a department that Ackerman later described as less complex in the 1960s than it had become when he took over the company more than 30 years later. On the other hand, Ackerman acknowledged that the basic premise of customer service had not changed over the intervening years, namely the importance of "treating customers with respect; listening to them and trying to understand needs and how to satisfy those needs" (USA Today, March 14, 2004).
Ackerman was given various assignments in Orlando and Miami between 1964 and 1971. During that time he also earned a master's degree in commercial science from Rollins in 1970. In 1971 he was promoted to division plant manager, a position that he held until 1974, when he was named general personnel supervisor at Southern Bell's headquarters in Atlanta. He was promoted to assistant vice president of the plant department in 1975.
Ackerman left Southern Bell for several years in order to do graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was named a Sloan Fellow in 1977. He earned his MBA at MIT in 1978 and returned to Southern Bell. He was named to the position of general and commercial marketing manager for the company's operations in North Carolina. Ackerman returned to Atlanta in 1979 after he was selected as vice president of the company for the Georgia network.
THE FORMATION OF BELLSOUTH
AT&T had been subject to antitrust litigation for nearly a decade during the 1970s and 1980s. By 1983 the company had agreed to divest itself of its local telephone operating companies. BellSouth Corporation was formed as a result of this divestiture. In October 1983, about two months prior to completing the breakup of AT&T, BellSouth elected 10 officers. Ackerman was chosen to serve as the company's vice president for corporate planning and development. He later admitted that the company experienced some apprehension about the impending breakup. "There was a little bit of shock and a little bit of concern," Ackerman said in 1989 (MIS Week, January 2, 1989).
Ackerman was elected in March 1985 to a new position as executive vice president for network planning and marketing for BellSouth Services, Incorporated. By this time, two years after the divestiture, BellSouth had already become a standout among the other regional Bell companies. It was the first of the "Baby Bells" to request permission from the divestiture court to develop and sell software and the first to begin widespread installation of optical fiber in its local networks. Ackerman demonstrated foresight regarding the use of new technologies for transmitting information. "We want businesses to use the public network to move data," he said in 1985 with regard to the improvements in the company's network (Data Communications, May 1, 1985).
BellSouth's strategies paid off. The company grew at a faster rate than the other regional Bell companies, adding more than 650,000 local access lines in 1987. Ackerman emphasized that BellSouth would pursue strategies for expanding its residential and small-business services, since those markets were growing along with the expanding population in BellSouth's home region. "I don't think telephone companies in the past looked at the residential markets the way we're going to look at them in the future," said Ackerman in 1988. "The demographics have changed dramatically, and I believe that will offer us opportunities" (Telephony, April 4, 1988).
RAPID RISE IN THE COMPANY
Ackerman's role in developing BellSouth's effective marketing strategy led to his appointment in February 1989 as vice chairman of finance and administration. The move was significant in Ackerman's career in that several other executives had more seniority than Ackerman at the time. Analysts noted that Ackerman had become a candidate to eventually become chairman of the company.
Ackerman gained broad responsibility for overseeing the company's finances, budgeting, administration, and strategic planning as well as supervising a number of department staffs. The company's chief financial officer reported directly to Ackerman in his new position. Ackerman in turn reported directly to BellSouth's chairman, John Clendenin. Under Clendenin's leadership, and with the assistance of Ackerman and fellow vice-chairman William McCoy, BellSouth in 1989 continued to outperform other local telephone companies. The company had become the most technologically advanced local telephone network in the country. In addition, it was the third largest cellular telephone company in the United States.
BellSouth Services, Southern Bell, and South Central Bell, which had previously been separate operating companies under the umbrella of BellSouth Corporation, consolidated in 1991 to form BellSouth Telecommunications. Ackerman was named vice chairman of BellSouth Corporation and president and chief operating officer of BellSouth Telecommunications. In 1992 he became president and chief executive officer of BellSouth Telecommunications.
As Ackerman rose through the ranks at BellSouth during the early 1990s, he became more involved in Atlanta civic affairs. He was appointed to the boards of the Commerce Club and Central Atlanta Progress and was highly active in the local Boy Scouts. With Ackerman's help, the Boy Scouts raised $1 million to encourage children from public housing communities to join the organization.
Ackerman adopted a low-key yet smooth management style. "Duane is so quiet, you almost can't hear him purr," said one acquaintance who served on a board with Ackerman (Atlanta Journal and Constitution, March 9, 1993). His management style, however, was quite effective. As vice president during the late 1980s, he demanded teamwork among subordinates. Ackerman reportedly threatened to force one employee to share a "double desk" (a desk constructed for two users, who must work side by side) with a colleague if the employee did not work more closely with the rest of his group (Wall Street Journal, March 1, 1989).
THE NEW CEO
Ackerman worked with BellSouth Telecommunications until 1995, when he was appointed vice chairman of the board and chief operating officer for BellSouth Corporation. Clendenin was nearing the end of his term at the helm at BellSouth, while Ackerman had emerged as the likely successor. When Clendenin announced his plans to retire as of January 1, 1997, Ackerman was named as the company's new president and chief executive officer. Clendenin expressed full confidence in Ackerman. "Duane is an extremely capable guy and just has a great grasp of the total business," Clendenin said. "We have shared ideas and points of view for many years" (Atlanta Journal and Constitution, April 23, 1996).
Ackerman looked forward to the challenges that came with his promotion. "I look at it with a little bit of awe," he said of his new position. "I look at it with the conviction that you've got to keep looking over your shoulder. When you wake up in the morning, you don't have to wait for the wheels to start turning. They're turning when you get up and they're turning all day long." (Chattanooga Free Press, November 3, 1996). Analysts said that Ackerman was taking over BellSouth during a difficult time. "He'll walk in with a plate full of challenges," said one analyst. "There's never been a more difficult and challenging time to take the reins." (Chattanooga Free Press, November 3, 1996).
At the time that Ackerman took control of BellSouth in 1997, the telecommunications industry was beginning to experience the effects of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which, among other provisions, deregulated local telephone markets. BellSouth had enjoyed a virtual monopoly over its local telephone markets, but after the legislation was passed, the company had to deal with competition. Ackerman acknowledged that the company would undergo changes under his leadership, but he maintained that the transition was a result of the change in the market rather than his leadership style.
Ackerman expected BellSouth to lose as much as 20 percent of its local network revenues from competition in 1997 but vowed to build such other aspects of the business as long-distance services in order to compensate. "There's going to be a battle in our region," Ackerman said. "Our goal is to add more revenue than we're going to lose" (Forbes, May 19, 1997). In September 1997, the company announced that it would buy back $1 billion of its own shares in order to boost stock prices to spark the interest of investors. The company also announced in September 1997 that Ackerman would assume the duties of chairman of the board.
MAINTAINING BELLSOUTH'S INDEPENDENCE
BellSouth was the only remaining former "Baby Bell" that existed in its original form by 1999. Ackerman worked diligently to maintain the company's independence, even amid swirling rumors that the company had been targeted for acquisition by other firms. Part of Ackerman's strategy was to build the company's overseas operations. By 2000 BellSouth had built a major market share for wireless products in South America. Of the company's $25 billion in revenues, 10 percent came from its international operations.
Other companies continued to grow larger through mergers, but BellSouth remained profitable without giving up its independence. "BellSouth is the smallest of the Baby Bells, but it's still in the top 100 companies in the world," Ackerman said in 2003. "We are doing very well against our peers" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 25, 2003).
DEDICATION TO CUSTOMER SERVICE
Ackerman was well known for spending time in the field, often riding around in company trucks. "We don't want to get too far away from what's happening with the customers and our people," Ackerman told a reporter from BusinessWeek on one occasion (August 2, 1999). Ackerman also remained dedicated to customer service, a commitment that went back to his first positions with the company during the 1960s. According to the University of Michigan American Customer Satisfaction Index, BellSouth led all local telephone service providers in customer service satisfaction every year between 1993 and 2003. "Those around us know we're committed [to customer service], because we live it," said Ackerman. "If you're consistent over time, it will permeate [the company]" (USA Today, March 14, 2004).
Ackerman also served on the boards of Wachovia Corporation and the Allstate Corporation. He was active in a number of civic organizations, including the Georgia Research Alliance, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Woodruff Arts Center, and the National Council on Competitiveness. In 2004 President George W. Bush named Ackerman as chair of the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee. Ackerman received an honorary doctorate from Rollins College in 2000, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University in 2001.
See also entries on AT&T Corp. and BellSouth Corporation in International Directory of Company Histories.
sources for further information
"BellSouth CEO Committed to Customer Service," USA Today, March 14, 2004.
Booker, Ellis, "BellSouth Revs into High Gear," Telephony, April 4, 1988, pp. 40–45.
Gannes, Stuart, and Nancy J. Perry, "BellSouth is on a Ringing Streak," Fortune, October 9, 1989, pp. 66–72.
Hayes, John R., "Focused," Forbes, May 19, 1997, pp. 124–127.
Kanell, Michael E., "Telecommunications: The Executives," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 14, 1996.
Lopez, Julie Amparano, "BellSouth's Ackerman Leapfrogs Others To Succeed White as a Vice Chairman," Wall Street Journal, March 1, 1989.
Rice, Marc, "Change in CEO at BellSouth 1st Since It Became 'Baby Bell,'" Chattanooga Free Press, November 3, 1996.
Robinson, Teri, "BellSouth Rises Again," MIS Week, January 2, 1989, p. 20.
Rocks, David, "Is Standing Firm Enough?," BusinessWeek, August 2, 1999.
Saporta, Maria, "BellSouth Officer Makes Connections To Better the City," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, March 9, 1993.
——, "Calm Growth Wise Policy for BellSouth," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 25, 2003.
——, "End of an Era Approaches for BellSouth CEO," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, April 23, 1996.
Spiegel, Peter, "The Crafty Globalizer," Forbes, March 20, 2000, pp. 81–83.
Wilke, John R., "BellSouth Leads the Pack with Lightwave, Data Services," Data Communications, May 1, 1985, pp. 68-69.
—Matthew C. Cordon