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US West execs begin exodus

The first senior executive casualty of US West's pending merger with Qwest Communications International announces his departure.

The first senior executive casualty of US West's pending merger with Qwest Communications International announced his departure today.

Joe Zell, who heads the company's data networking and new products division, said he is leaving the company to join Convergent Communications, a Colorado-based networking company.

"Joining Convergent Communications was a simple decision for me," Zell said in a statement today. "It fits in a sweet spot in my expertise."

The merger with Qwest has proven much stormier than expected, with blowups that have occasionally called into question the future of the two companies' marriage.

Simmering disputes over the vision for the new company prompted US West CEO Sol Trujillo to announce last month that he would not join the new company after the merger's close, although he would remain until that time. Shortly afterward, a fight over another possible acquisition bid from Deutsche Telekom prompted Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio to condemn US West's senior management actions as "bizarre."

Nacchio's public fit of pique clouded the future for much of US West's chief management.

"We have good relationships with the operating people at US West," Nacchio told reporters then. "When you get below the policy level, I think the companies can work together."

People close to the company say Zell is one of three senior US West executives who have recently said they will not join the new company.

Chief financial officer Al Spies and Greg Winn, executive vice president of operations and technology, also have declined to take offers with the merged Qwest, insiders say.

Whatever the potential culture or personality differences with Qwest executives, Zell will be a telling loss for the new company. Since 1997, the executive has lead the division of US West responsible for its high-speed Internet services. He also has been instrumental in creating innovative services such as video over telephone lines, video on demand and a bargain-rate high-speed Net service.

It was these data services, rather than the Baby Bell's sprawling local phone network, that in large part led Qwest to merge with US West in the first place, analysts have said.

Zell isn't the first data leader from US West to move to the start-up world. His predecessor, Catherine Hapka, is now CEO of Rhythms NetConnections, a high-speed Internet service provider. Rhythms' two closest rivals, Covad Communications and Northpoint Communications, also are headed by US West alumni.