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Excite@Home chief to relinquish CEO role

CEO Tom Jermoluk is expected to step down and hand the reins over to the high-speed access and content firm's president, George Bell, according to sources.

Excite@Home chief executive Tom Jermoluk is expected to hand over the role of CEO to president George Bell, according to sources familiar with the plans.

The broadband access and content company will George Bell announce the executive shuffle today after the close of financial markets when it reports fourth-quarter earnings, sources said.

Jermoluk, 43, is expected to remain Excite@Home chairman, guiding the company's relationship with its owners, including majority shareholder AT&T. Jermoluk will step in as a strategy man, forging new partnerships and negotiating deals with cable partners after many of Excite@Home?s exclusive contracts expire in 2002.

Excite@Home spokeswoman Melissa Walia declined to comment on the news.

Earlier this year, published reports speculated that Jermoluk could take a diminished role or even resign from the company after the merger with Excite was complete.

Jermoluk?s move comes on the heels of several high-profile chief executive shifts in the high-tech industry. Just last week, Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates stepped aside to give Steve Ballmer the position at the software firm. Also last week, America Online's Steve Case said he planned to hand over the title of chief executive to Time Warner's Gerald Levin once AOL's acquisition of Time Warner is completed. Ted Waitt, the founder of direct PC-seller Gateway, also announced similar plans last month.

It also comes as technology and Internet executives are changing the face of the chairman role in companies. The chairman post once was mainly an honorary title given to former top executives who wished to be less active in a company. Recently it has become a position chief executives take to be more involved in a company's strategy and less in its day-to-day operations.

Bell, who came to Excite@Home after Web portal Excite merged with @Home Network, has been overseeing day-to-day operations since the merger.

Meanwhile, Jermoluk has increasingly turned his attention to managing the company's cable relationships. Although the executives? titles will be different, it is unlikely that their duties will change significantly.

"(Jermoluk) may have gotten frustrated with the situation where (Excite@Home) has its cable overlords, like AT&T, controlling things in terms of what will happen," Davenport & Company analyst Drake Johnstone said. "It's not like he is running an independent company."

Johnstone, who has had a "hold" rating on Excite@Home stock, questions whether Jermoluk will remain at the company for much longer following this transition.

"Let me put it this way: Whenever I see someone say they are moving to the chairmanship, to me that sounds like it?s one foot from the exit," added Johnstone.

The Wall Street Journal, citing people close to the situation, first reported the executive changes today at Excite@Home.

The paper reported that Bell is likely to now concentrate on the company's recent decision to separate its media assets into a tracking stock later this year.

In recent months, Excite@Home has seen its stock drop to near 52-week lows. Many investors have questioned whether the company has stumbled in several key areas of the merger, especially in light of its recent plans to separate its media assets.

Jermoluk and Bell are likely to seek out more partnerships and potential merger or acquisition partners, according to the paper.

CNET News.com's Corey Grice contributed to this report.