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Robert E. Allen, 81, Dies; Led an AT&T in Transition

Robert E. Allen, who as chief executive and chairman of AT&T for almost a decade presided over major reorganizations of the company as the telecommunications industry remade itself in the late 1980s and ’90s, died on Saturday in Chatham, N.J. He was 81.

His son Jay said the cause was complications of a stroke that Mr. Allen had in January.

Mr. Allen had a 40-year career with AT&T, beginning straight out of college in 1957 managing telephone operators at Indiana Bell. He reached the top post after the death of James E. Olson in 1988.

Mr. Allen, who was president at the time, had been running the company on an interim basis while Mr. Olson was being treated for cancer.

Mr. Allen took the reins in a time of great uncertainty for AT&T. The company was struggling to become a competitive computer and communications business after the federal government, in a landmark antitrust case, had broken up its telephone monopoly. Long-distance carriers were posing a challenge, and mobile phones and the internet were coming into their own.

Mr. Allen oversaw the acquisition of McCaw Cellular, which helped AT&T become a force in wireless communication as it spun off most of its manufacturing divisions under the name Lucent Technologies. (Lucent became Alcatel-Lucent through a merger in 2006.)

His efforts to turn the company into a computer giant were less successful. The company acquired NCR for $ 7.5 billion in 1991 but decided in 1995 to jettison it as part of a breakup plan that cut 40,000 jobs companywide. He was sharply criticized early the next year when the company reported giving him a large raise.

“Restructuring to get to a strong future does unfortunately require force reductions,” Mr. Allen said in a message to employees in 1996. “I’m not immune to the emotions they engender. I’m deeply saddened by the pain and loss this is causing some of our people and their families. But in the end, concern isn’t enough.”


AT&T, once known informally as Ma Bell, is a storied American brand that goes back under a succession of names to the late 19th century, after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

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Robert Eugene Allen was born on Jan. 25, 1935, in Joplin, Mo., the only child of Walter and Louise Allen. His father owned a children’s clothing store, and his mother was a teacher.

He grew up mainly in New Castle, Ind., where he began delivering newspapers at age 8 and held several other jobs, including work as a mechanic, lifeguard and carpenter’s assistant. In another job, on a farm, he would pass along rows of corn, snapping off the spiky tassels that emerge while the corn is growing.

He attended Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., to study political science and economics. While there, he married Elizabeth Pfeffer, known as Betty. They spent his senior year living on campus in an area of Quonset hut-style structures that had been built during World War II. She survives him.

After graduation, he joined a management-training program at Indiana Bell and began climbing the corporate ladder. By 1972, he had become vice president and board secretary.

Over the next decade or so he moved to management positions at other AT&T companies, including Illinois Bell, the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Companies, and eventually at the parent company itself at its headquarters, then in Basking Ridge, N.J.

Hal Burlingame, a former executive vice president for human resources at AT&T, said Mr. Allen was credited with modernizing the management culture as the company shifted from a monopoly structure. He introduced approaches like 360-degree performance evaluations — drawing from a variety of evaluators, not just bosses — and was the first to encourage promoting women to run operations divisions, Mr. Burlingame said.

Mr. Allen, criticized for AT&T’s lagging stock growth, stepped down in 1997 after the board rejected his handpicked successor and named C. Michael Armstrong chairman and chief executive. Mr. Armstrong, who was chief executive of the Hughes Electronics Corporation, was the first AT&T chairman to be appointed from outside the company.

Besides his wife and son Jay, Mr. Allen is survived by his daughters, Katherine Allen, Ann Allen and Amy Allen; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Another son, Daniel, died last year.

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