The Man Who's Running A Nutsier Boltsier Bell Labs

The forces reshaping Bellcore have not spared the granddaddy of communications research, AT&T Bell Laboratories, which is also under new leadership. "Bell Labs as an entity no longer exists," complains Charles V. Shank, an electronics expert recruited from Bell Labs last year to head Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories. Yet Shank becomes a pushover when asked about Bell Labs' new president: "John Mayo is an absolutely terrific choice."

That's just the kind of endorsement John S. Mayo needs as he takes over from Ian M. Ross as the seventh president of the world-famous labs. Mayo will have to draw on a reservoir of trust and respect for his scientific acumen as he makes exactly the kinds of changes that worry scientists such as Shank. Mayo, named on July 1, plans to continue making Bell Labs more of a profit-minded industrial lab--and perhaps less of a breeding ground for Nobel prizes, of which it has produced four.

At 61, Mayo has four years to make his mark. He has already spent 36 years with Bell Labs, playing big roles in the first Telstar communications satellite and the first system for high-speed digital transmission of phone calls. He went on to be the executive in charge of switches and transmission gear--a job that gave him experience in meeting budgets and dealing with business types.

That should come in handy now. Bell Labs is the only arm of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. scarcely scathed by cuts. Its budget, slightly more than $3 billion a year, has risen nearly 60% since the Bell System breakup in 1984, partly through taking over functions of other AT&T units.

Now, pressure is growing to produce more tangible results. The 90% of the labs' budget that goes to development has been placed firmly under the control of the managers of AT&T's 20 lines of business. Even the $300 million research section was reorganized last year to focus more on practical fields, such as information science, and less on the prize-winning physical sciences. Getting approval for long-term projects is tougher than ever, says Al Cho, director of semiconductor research. Cho spent a dozen years co-developing the molecular beam epitaxy machine, a device for growing crystals that has become a mainstay of semiconductor research. He wonders if he could get approval for such a project today.

Mayo insists that there's no conflict between responding to immediate business needs and doing important research. He notes that Bell Labs' search for a replacement for vacuum tubes, which blew out too often, led to the transistor, one of the biggest physics breakthroughs of the century.

NO DAWDLING. As AT&T shows a new boldness--typified by its recent purchase of computer maker NCR Corp.--Bell Labs will have to be nimbler. Mayo says he'll remove speed bumps, such as lack of teamwork, that inhibit quick product introductions and new software. That stress on streamlining won't be easy to stomach for scientists who prefer the long view.

Luckily for Mayo, he goes in with plenty of goodwill on his side. Cho, despite his misgivings about the Labs' direction, says: "He's going to be an outstanding president." If Mayo can retain that kind of support, he should be able to make a real difference in his few years at the helm.

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