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Lucent exec on direct route to top

Following in the footsteps of former Lucent exec Carly Fiorina, Patricia Russo oversees a lucrative unit that encompasses some of Lucent's largest contract wins.

Running a business with more annual revenue than Nortel Networks or Cisco Systems, you might think Patricia Russo is the chief executive of a multinational networking firm.

But Russo is just one member of an executive team at Lucent Technologies, the Murray Hill, N.J.-based telecommunications equipment firm that recently promoted the long-time executive to run its service provider business. The division accounted for $24 billion in revenue for the most recent fiscal year.

As part of a company restructuring announced last month, Russo was named executive vice president and chief executive of Lucent's service provider business. She oversees some of the company's largest contract wins with network operators such as Level 3 Communications and AT&T.

Lucent's service provider business consists of the sales organization as well as the product groups that serve traditional phone companies, emerging network operators and Internet service providers (ISP).

Russo also replaced another high-flying executive, Carly Fiorina, who was recently named chief executive at computer systems giant Hewlett-Packard. The transition is significant in the often male-dominated world of high technology, as Russo, 47, is a second-generation female executive at one of the most successful technology companies in the world.

In 1981, Russo joined AT&T, Lucent's parent firm before it was spun off in 1996, and held various positions including heading the firm's business communications unit from 1992 until 1996. That unit would become part of the later-created Lucent.

Since that time, Russo has been executive vice president of business strategy, business development and corporate operations, before her promotion to division CEO. Though her former colleague Fiorina gained much notoriety for making the cover of Fortune as the most powerful woman in American business, the publication also named Russo as one of the top 50 female executives in both 1998 and 1999.

In a recent interview with CNET, Russo said comparisons between her predecessor and herself are unwarranted, especially if they are motivated by gender.

"I think this is about individuals," Russo said in her office at Lucent's headquarters. "I expect people will make comparisons. I would encourage them not to."

Claiming to be no technologist, Russo said she wants to focus on Lucent's steep learning curve to quickly become versed in her unit's operations. But she is well aware of the opportunity the explosion of the Internet and communications provides.

"It's about out-executing the competition," Russo said. "That's a good challenge to have."

Russo is at the center of a cutthroat market in which huge firms are competing to provide a wider variety of voice, video and data services.

Some, most notably her boss, Lucent's CEO Rich McGinn, believe Russo has what it takes to drive Lucent's largest cash cow.

"She brings a wealth of experience in terms of understanding the customers and leading teams of talented people," McGinn said. "Certainly, she is technology-savvy as well and has a very good business acumen, understanding both the art of the deal and how to translate that deal into value for the company.

"I think she's going to lead and serve that group very, very well," McGinn added.

Russo's long-time friend Hal Burlingame, an executive vice president at AT&T, notes that while at the telecommunications giant Russo was "one of the first women to take a main line position."

Burlingame said that among Russo's significant accomplishments is a turnaround of AT&T's phone switching business, a niche that is now part of Lucent. Burlingame said Russo's "rock-solid" values set a tone that others found easy to follow--a pattern that has continued throughout her career, he says.

"[Co-workers] saw her for what she was and she never claimed to be anything she wasn't. She has real credibility as a person," Burlingame said.