James S. Kahan

Senior Executive Vice President, Corporate Development
SBC Communications Inc.
BSEE ’69

For his outstanding technical expertise, management skills, and service to the profession, the College of Engineering is proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to James S. Kahan.

Feeling the Lure of the Business World

As an electrical engineering major at Purdue, Jim Kahan never imagined that one day he’d be sitting in an executive suite engineering multi-billion-dollar corporate mergers—some of the largest in U.S. history.

Kahan arrived at Purdue in the late 1960s intent on pursuing a career in electrical engineering. But even as an undergraduate, he began to feel the lure of the business world.

“I’m really glad I stuck with my engineering major as an undergrad,” he says. “As it turns out, that grounding was more relevant to a business career than I could ever have imagined, and has served me extremely well. My engineering education at Purdue gave me the ability to bridge the gap between the theoretical and the practical, to apply rigor and discipline to problem solving, to understand how different systems interconnect with one another, and to apply solid principles and sound logic.”

During his time at Purdue, Kahan had worked for two summers at Western Electric, a manufacturing arm of the Bell System Companies. He decided to join the company after graduating from Purdue with a BS in electrical engineering in 1969.

During his years with Western, Kahan worked on a missile project in Greensboro, where he completed an MBA by taking night classes at the University of North Carolina’s campus there.

He then took a number of steps up the corporate ladder, traversing the country as he did so.

In 1971, Kahan transferred to Bell Laboratories in Piscataway, New Jersey, where he worked on the design of computer software in the nascent computer industry. Still working as an engineer, he transferred to South Central Bell in Birmingham, Alabama. But it was the switch to “Ma Bell”—AT&T—in 1981 that changed the course of his career.

Finding His Calling

“When I went to AT&T,” Kahan says, “I worked with all the Bell operating companies doing financial assessments and helped deploy large-scale billing and IT systems. I knew I had found my calling.”

When AT&T was forced to spin off the Bell System in 1984, Kahan reported to San Antonio, where he became Director of Corporate Development for one of Ma Bell’s offspring, Southwestern Bell (later renamed SBC Communications).

Once at SBC, he rose from a midlevel management executive to one of the top ten officers in the company in less than a decade, eventually landing as Senior Executive VP of Corporate Development in 1996, reporting to CEO Ed Whitacre.

“I was put in an optimum situation,” Kahan says of his quick ascension up the corporate ladder. “Working for a telephone company gave me a chance to combine my training as an electrical engineer with my strategic business skills. At the time telecom was—and indeed still is—undergoing a fundamental technological transformation. Understanding how networks operate and being able to understand the nuances of varying technologies made it easier for me to make informed decisions in my merger and acquisition work.

“When the Bell system was broken up, SBC was of the smallest of the seven regional Bell companies that were formed, and in many ways SBC was considered the least likely to succeed. Over the last 20 years, we’ve made some of the largest acquisitions in U.S. history, and as a result, today SBC is one of the largest and most admired telecom companies in the world.”

Leading SBC to Global Leadership

Under Kahan’s leadership at the M&A helm, SBC became a juggernaut, quadrupling in size thanks to SBC’s acquisition of Pacific Telesis in 1997, Southern New England Telecom in 1998, and Ameritech in 1999. SBC also began developing an international portfolio, beginning with a $1 billion investment in Telefonos de Mexico in 1990 and expanding it to 26 countries. Kahan was also instrumental in forging a deal with BellSouth to create Cingular Wireless in 2000, and Cingular’s recent gambit to become the top wireless company in the U.S. by acquiring AT&T Wireless is the largest all-cash deal in history. He also orchestrated joint ventures with Yahoo! and Echostar (owner of the DISH Network) to solidify SBC’s position in the broadband and video entertainment markets.

Today, SBC is one of the world’s leading data, voice, and Internet services providers, including networking and e-business services, as well as directory advertising and publishing. With $43 billion in revenues and 170,000 employees, SBC is ranked 27 on the 2003 Fortune 500 list and has been named the World’s Most Admired Telecommunications Company by the magazine six years in a row. In 1999 SBC became one of the 30 companies that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

2004SBC-owned Cingular Wireless announces plans to acquire AT&T Wireless
2002SBC announces landmark alliance with Yahoo!
2000SBC and BellSouth create Cingular Wireless
1999SBC acquires Ameritech Corporation
1998SBC acquires Southern New England Telecommunications
1997SBC acquires Pacific Telesis, parent of Pacific Bell and Nevada Bell
1996SBC Communications, Senior Executive Vice President, Corporate Development
1992SBC Communications, Senior Vice President, Corporate Development
1990SBC acquires 10% of Telefonos de Mexico (TELMEX)
1988 SBC Communications, Managing Director, Corporate Development
1984 SBC Communications, Director, Corporate Development, San Antonio, TX
1983 Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, Engineer
1981AT&T, Basking Ridge, NY, Engineer
1975 South Central Bell, Birmingham, AL, Engineer
1972 Bell Laboratories, Piscataway, NJ, Engineer
1967 Western Electric, St. Louis, MO, Engineer

BSEE ’69, Purdue University
MBA’71, University of North Carolina