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Companies do away with chief operating officers

Ali Rowghani, former chief operating officer of Twitter Inc.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Ali Rowghani, former chief operating officer of Twitter Inc.

Brent Whittington was a hugely important part of Windstream Communications.

As chief operating officer, his pay was second only to that of the CEO's—roughly $1 million cash in 2013, plus $1.7 million worth of stock. And because of the extensive traveling the COO job requires, the company gave him more access to Windstream aircraft for personal use than it did other top executives.

Yet when Whittington leaves the company effective Monday, as was announced earlier this month, Windstream won't replace him. With the move, the cloud computing and internet service provider has become the latest in a long line of companies to ax the COO job.

Fast food giant McDonald's said earlier this year that when COO Tim Fenton retires Oct. 1, he will not be replaced. His work will be given to two executive vice presidents instead. Twitter said much the same when its COO, Ali Rowghani, resigned in June. Apple did not hire a replacement when COO Tim Cook became CEO in 2011.

According to tracking by executive search firm Crist Kolder Associates, the COO position has been on a slide among major corporations for years. The percentage of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies—a total of 668 major corporations—with a COO went from roughly 48% in 2000 to 35% in 2013.

The COO traditionally has been a powerful top executive, often serving as the right hand of the CEO and concerned with overseeing the day-to-day operations of the business. And it often is a steppingstone position to then running the company. Daniel Carp was Eastman Kodak president/COO before being named CEO. At Xerox, G. Richard Thoman and Anne Mulcahy followed the same career path—president/COO before becoming CEO.

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Kodak did not replace its COO position when co-President/COO Philip Faraci's job was eliminated in 2012 as part of the company's Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring.

"Kodak is today a much smaller company," spokesman Christopher Veronda said. "We have greatly streamlined the management structure."

The COO role might be a victim of the fact that companies are decreasingly diverse in terms of what they do, said Harold Star, adjunct assistant professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management.

"The need for a central officer to act as a quarterback in effect (for numerous divisions) has diminished," Star said.

Gary L. Neilson, a senior partner with management consulting company Strategy&, said the COO job is being made increasingly superfluous by technology, from e-mail to real-time business metrics, which makes running a company easier. And as companies increasingly have the CEO and chairman job done by separate people, "CEOs are expected to be closer to the business," Neilson said.

"They have a, quote unquote, smaller job, slightly more focused," which also eliminates a need for a COO, he said. "It's just becoming a less relevant job."

Windstream said that when Whittington leaves, his duties will be split up between two executive vice presidents.

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Asked why Windstream wasn't replacing Whittington, spokesman David Avery said, "We have seasoned leaders in network engineering and operations. Both now will report directly to (CEO) Jeff Gardner, increasing collaboration and oversight."

By USA Today's Matthew Daneman. Daneman also reports for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle

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