This Indian-born COO is a rising telecom star

CIOL Bureau
Updated On
New Update

Ben Klayman


CHICAGO: The collapse of Alcatel's purchase last month of Lucent Technologies

Inc. has not stopped Alcatel Chief Operating Officer Krish Prabhu's ascent as

one of the telecommunications industry's hottest stars.

Prabhu, 46, is among a handful of candidates who could be tapped to lead

Lucent or Nortel Networks Corp., industry observers said. It remains to be seen

if Prabhu, an engineer who has risen to the big leagues of the telecom industry,

would have what it takes to turn around a Lucent or a Nortel - both equipment

giants have struggled with slowing demand that has forced drastic job cuts. But

he does have fans on Wall Street.

"He's the one person on the Alcatel side that Wall Street actually

likes, Wall Street gets along with," one analyst, who asked not to be

identified, said of the Indian-born American executive. "We thought he

maybe would be the guy that would leave and become chief executive of Lucent or



Alcatel's failed takeover of Lucent meant Prabhu lost the chance to run

Lucent's Bell Labs, where he launched his career as an engineer in 1980. While

he would not comment for this story, interviews with industry officials,

analysts, mutual fund managers and friends paint a picture of a driven,

charismatic executive - even if it remains to be seen if he is picked to run a

telecom equipment firm.

Born in South India, Prabhu came to the United States in 1975 after earning a

master's degree in physics from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. He

then earned Master's and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from the

University of Pittsburgh and in 1980 he was hired at Bell Labs, then part of

long-distance telephone giant AT&T Corp. He joined Rockwell in Dallas in



'Not your figurehead leader'

Described as driven yet friendly, Prabhu joined Alcatel in 1991, when the
French telecom equipment firm bought the Rockwell unit where he worked. He has

held Alcatel's top spot in the United States since 1997, and in 1999 was named


"He's not relying on others to tell him what to say," said Ken

Wigglesworth, a venture capitalist who was chief financial officer of Newbridge

Networks, which Alcatel bought last year for $7.1 billion. "He's not your

figurehead leader." Prabhu also isn't one to feel lost in the research


"He has an amazing ability to cross technology boundaries, from the most

theoretical optical networking stuff to make a buck with that in the

field," said Bill Osborne, ean of the University of Texas at Dallas

engineering and computer science school, where Prabhu taught part time in the

late 1980s.


On the other hand, Prabhu can move freely between the lab and Wall Street,

said Paul Pandian, who worked with Prabhu at Rockwell and has known him almost

20 years. "He started out as a pure and simple engineer, but very soon he

became a businessman as well. That kind of a transition, very few people have

made successfully," said Pandian, now CEO of Dallas-based telecom software


However, questions remain about his experience. "He knows the technology.
He's quite dynamic himself, but whether he's quite got what it takes to run a

whole company, I'm not sure," said Susan Anthony, an analyst with Credit

Lyonnais in London. She nevertheless credits Prabhu for helping to change

attitudes at Alcatel, a former conglomerate that over the last several years has

transformed itself under CEO Serge Tchuruk's leadership into a leading

communications equipment firm.

Notwithstanding the collapse of the $23 billion merger with Lucent, Prabhu

also is credited with implementing Alcatel's aggressive North American expansion

the last several years. Since September 1998, Alcatel has spent more than $15

billion acquiring eight North American firms.


Devoted family man

Business alone doesn't drive Prabhu, who is devoted to his wife and three
children, friends said. He has remained in Dallas to allow his children to

finish high school in America. His family already has lived overseas once.

Prabhu was president of Alcatel's Belgium-based broadband products business from

1995 to 1997, when the company launched its digital subscriber line division.

While he doesn't speak French, Prabhu recently told Fortune magazine

he would welcome the opportunity to run Alcatel, and company insiders credit him

with bridging the American-French relationship quite nicely. Prabhu's experience

puts him at the top of the list for any company searching for a new leader,

industry officials said. Lucent and Nortel are likely eyeing many of the same

candidates, said Scott Scanlon, chairman and CEO Hunt-Scanlon Advisors, a

Stamford, Connecticut-based market research firm that tracks executive



Picture perfect

"When I look at both of these assignments, the No 1 item at the top of
the agenda for the incoming CEO is that this is obviously a turnaround

situation. He seems to fit the bill," Scanlon said of the prospects of

Prabhu leading either Lucent or Nortel. Both firms have been tight-lipped about

their searches.

The delay in finding a replacement for Lucent CEO Henry Schacht, who came

back to lead Lucent after his protege, Rich McGinn, was forced out last October,

suggests some candidates have been scared off by Lucent's problems, Merrill

Lynch analyst Michael Ching said.

"Is this a new challenge for Jack Welch?" he said, suggesting the

turnaround at Lucent will require an executive as talented as General Electric's

storied CEO. "The depth of the problems are pretty severe." Nortel has

insisted it will consider both internal and external candidates to replace

retiring CEO John Roth. However, analysts said the world's largest telecom gear

maker, which recently predicted a staggering $19.2 billion second-quarter loss,

needs an outsider at the helm.

Other potential candidates at Nortel include former Nortel CFO Peter Currie,

former Nortel president and former Bay Networks CEO, David House and Don Listwin,

who left Cisco Systems Inc. where he was seen as potential successor, to head up

software maker Openwave Systems Inc.

(C) Reuters Limited 2001.