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updated: 4/30/2013 8:54 AM

Tellabs' Birck retires Wednesday, aims to focus on health, family

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  • Tellabs Inc. co-founder and Chairman Mike J. Birck talks Monday in his office at the Naperville headquarters, two days before he officially retires during the company's shareholder meeting set for Wednesday.

       Tellabs Inc. co-founder and Chairman Mike J. Birck talks Monday in his office at the Naperville headquarters, two days before he officially retires during the company's shareholder meeting set for Wednesday.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Tellabs Inc. co-founder and Chairman Mike J. Birck talks Monday in his office at the Naperville headquarters, two days before he officially retires during the company's shareholder meeting.

       Tellabs Inc. co-founder and Chairman Mike J. Birck talks Monday in his office at the Naperville headquarters, two days before he officially retires during the company's shareholder meeting.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Naperville-based Tellabs co-founder and Chairman Mike J. Birck talks Monday in his office at the Naperville headquarters, two days before he officially retires during the company's shareholder meeting set for Wednesday.

       Naperville-based Tellabs co-founder and Chairman Mike J. Birck talks Monday in his office at the Naperville headquarters, two days before he officially retires during the company's shareholder meeting set for Wednesday.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Michael J. Birck co-founder of Tellabs Inc. was feted Sunday at a reception with about 400 guests at the company's headquarters in Naperville. He officially retires as chairman of the board on Wednesday during the company's annual shareholder meeting.

      Michael J. Birck co-founder of Tellabs Inc. was feted Sunday at a reception with about 400 guests at the company's headquarters in Naperville. He officially retires as chairman of the board on Wednesday during the company's annual shareholder meeting.
    COURTESY OF TELLABS INC.

  • Michael J. Birck co-founder of Tellabs Inc. was feted on Sunday at a reception with about 400 guests at the company's headquarters in Naperville. Here, he hugs his wife, Kay, before he officially retires as chairman of the board on Wednesday during the company's annual shareholder meeting.

      Michael J. Birck co-founder of Tellabs Inc. was feted on Sunday at a reception with about 400 guests at the company's headquarters in Naperville. Here, he hugs his wife, Kay, before he officially retires as chairman of the board on Wednesday during the company's annual shareholder meeting.
    COURTESY OF TELLABS INC.

  • Michael J. Birck co-founder of Tellabs Inc. was feted on Sunday at a reception with about 400 guests at the company's headquarters in Naperville. CEO Dan Kelly, left, presents Birck with his patent award plaque from 34 years ago. Birck's patent is for a Signaling Tone Transparent Echo Suppressor. In 1979, the award plaques were not available.

      Michael J. Birck co-founder of Tellabs Inc. was feted on Sunday at a reception with about 400 guests at the company's headquarters in Naperville. CEO Dan Kelly, left, presents Birck with his patent award plaque from 34 years ago. Birck's patent is for a Signaling Tone Transparent Echo Suppressor. In 1979, the award plaques were not available.
    COURTESY OF TELLABS INC.

 
 

Michael J. Birck, who joined with five colleagues to form Tellabs Inc. while sitting around his kitchen table in 1975, said he's retiring as chairman to make his health his No. 1 priority.

Birck, who has retired twice before and returned to the Tellabs helm, said his focus will be on treating his leukemia. Wednesday will be his last day.

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"That's got to be first," said Birck. "(Wife) Kay and I have talked about this and it's our top priority."

After finishing his latest round of chemo, the Hinsdale executive now will have six weeks without treatments, time that will be spent with family, he said. He said he is declining a bone-marrow transplant.

The former CEO was feted on Sunday at the Naperville headquarters where about 400 guests gathered, including former CEO Krish Prabhu, all to wish him well. Birck revealed last August that he has chronic myelomonocytic leukemia, an uncommon form of bone marrow cancer, and has been undergoing chemotherapy.

He said he decided against a bone-marrow transplant after doctors said the 75-year-old would have a possible 50-50 chance of dying during the first 100 days following the procedure. Birck said he'd rather take his chances without it.

"I have no big to-do list," Birck said. "I did a lot of things already. And as for other things, well, I'll get to them. But there's no race to finish things."

Brick and his wife, Kay, have three children and seven grandchildren, some here and others in Massachusetts. His other family has been Tellabs, the telecommunications equipment maker that he helped founded with five other colleagues while sitting at his kitchen table in 1975.

By 2000, Tellabs became a major global player, along with then Lucent Technologies, Cisco and others. They helped to lay the backbone for today's wireless communications industry. But the economic downturn forced them all to pull back. Tellabs laid off thousands of workers and re-evaluated its products and how it would support the new wireless world.

During those transitions, the company's leadership also had its ups and downs. Birck retired twice before as Tellabs CEO. The first time Birck returned was when Richard C. Notebaert joined Tellabs as CEO in 2000. Birck took over as CEO after Notebaert left Tellabs to go to Qwest Communications. Then Birck stepped down as CEO a second time when Krish Prabhu joined the company in 2004. Prabhu, now president and CEO of AT&T Labs Inc., said in prepared remarks Sunday that he was touched by Birck's faith in him.

"In 10 minutes on the phone, what came through was … Mike was so down-to-earth, no airs about him. He spoke openly. It meant a lot to me," Prabhu said. ""I came here in 2004. Mike gave me a book he'd written, Michael's Story, a fascinating book. What it really brings out is what America's all about."

Prabhu said the story showed how Birck, and people like him, had built America since the Depression.

"If you read his childhood years, about his love for baseball, the poverty in which he and his family grew," Prabhu said, "it really brings tears to your eyes, to see someone come out of that environment and build this great company. It's a great tribute."

Last year, then-Tellabs CEO Rob Pullen died of colon cancer and Dan Kelly took over and remains in that position. In fact, Kelly presented Birck on Sunday with a belated plaque for Birck's patent for a Signaling Tone Transparent Echo Suppressor. The award plaques were not available in 1979.

Through it all, Birck remained chairman of the board. He continued to ride the wave of changes in the industry that included consolidation among competitors, like Lucent with Alcatel. He said Monday that Tellabs also could benefit by merging with another company. But that's only if it's a good fit, Birck said.

"We need to get bigger," he said of Tellabs.

But this time, Birck doesn't intend to play a major role in how Tellabs becomes bigger. Although he may help lead the Tellabs Foundation, the company's nonprofit charitable arm, Birck reiterates that his health is No. 1. He's again letting go of the company he helped to give birth to. His successor as board chairman is expected to be named at the shareholder meeting on Wednesday.

"When I leave," he said, "I'll leave."

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