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V. Orville Wright, 1920 - 2008

MCI chief challenged AT&T

September 02, 2008|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post

V. Orville Wright, president and chief executive of MCI Communications during its transformation from a start-up into the leading challenger of AT&T in the 1970s and 1980s, has died. He was 87.

Wright, who died of kidney failure Aug. 21 at his home in Chevy Chase, Md., was a pivotal backstage figure in disrupting AT&T's virtual monopoly on long-distance phone service and communications technology.

A former Navy commander and marketing and technology executive, Wright joined the fledgling MCI in 1975 as president and chief operating officer.

Wright described himself as "the inside man, the man who worked with employees, who did the nitty-gritty work," in contrast with the dynamic public face of the company, chief executive William G. McGowan.

As the company sought to break into AT&T's long-distance terrain, McGowan successfully pushed for the Justice Department to file an antitrust suit seeking to break up AT&T's Bell telephone companies. The 10-year battle resulted in one of the largest corporate reorganizations in history, the creation of seven regional operating companies, the "Baby Bells," in 1984.

Meanwhile, Wright ran the daily operations of the discount carrier and tried to paint MCI as the scrappy No. 2 -- Avis to AT&T's Hertz. "We can beat them from the standpoint of cost," he told Time magazine in 1982. "I see the possibility now that we could get a third of the long distance market."

The company struggled with AT&T's continuing dominance -- about 85% of the market -- and the rise of other discounters such as Sprint.

Wright initially retired in 1985, but with McGowan's long convalescence from heart transplant surgery, he returned to serve as acting chief executive from 1987 to 1990. McGowan died in 1992.

Wright was a persuasive voice within MCI for dropping its earlier exploration of satellite communications, which caused delays between speakers and audible echoes that he said would irritate consumers.

Instead, he was credited with favoring MCI's construction of fiber-optic cable networks -- which led to a popular early e-mail service -- and establishing a high-speed digital infrastructure for the National Science Foundation Network, an early version of the Internet known as NSFNet.

MCI had 1989 revenue of $6.5 billion, but its major growth occurred a decade later when WorldCom, led by Bernard J. Ebbers, bought the company for $30 billion and began swallowing up high-tech businesses.

Ebbers later received a 25-year prison term for accounting fraud leading to the company's collapse. A much-reduced version of MCI emerged from bankruptcy in 2004 and the next year was purchased by Verizon for $6.7 billion.

Vernon Orville Wright -- who had no conclusive familial link to the airplane pioneer -- was born Sept. 9, 1920, in Mound City, Kan. His father sold farm equipment.

Wright was a 1942 graduate of the University of Kansas and spent the next 13 years in the Navy, including service in World War II and Korea. He retired with the rank of commander.

After his Navy career, he held executive positions with IBM, RCA, Amdahl and Xerox.

His board memberships included the Calpine Corp., a major independent power producer based in San Jose, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a policy organization.

His first and third marriages ended in divorce. His second wife died in 1986.

Survivors include two daughters from his first marriage and three grandchildren.

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