Serious business at Motorola

December 1, 2007, 2:57 AM UTC

Ed Zander, Fast Eddie to some of his Silicon Valley pals, is a regular wiseacre. When I caught up with him – and his successor, Greg Brown – Friday morning, right after Motorola (MOT) announced he’ll step down Jan. 1 as chief executive of the venerable cell-phone maker, Zander was on his way out the door to speak at the upcoming World Economic Forum meeting in New Delhi. “I’m out there trying to sell phones,” he cracked, implying that his hastily announced departure doesn’t mean he isn’t still flying the flag on Motorola’s behalf.

Motorola is portraying the “transition” in the CEO suite from Zander to Greg Brown as a long planned and orderly move. Curious, then, that when I asked Brown if he had a contract and what its term was he told me that he didn’t yet have one but that such matters would be decided next week. The Motorola board, which fired Chris Galvin just before the company’s fortunes were about to improve, clearly thinks ahead. (Incidentally, Motorola wants it understood that Zander isn’t receiving severance; He will stay on as chairman until the next annual meeting and then as an advisor to Brown until Jan. 5, 2009 — at his full salary as CEO. Sound like a sweet way to say bye-bye to me.)

For a while it looked like Ed Zander was just what Motorola needed, a fast-paced guy from the technology business, not the cell-phone business, to shake up a sleepy culture. But Zander obviously didn’t get the job done. He dissed Motorola’s customers and oversaw the slippage in mobile phone market share from No. 2 to No. 3.

On Friday, Zander didn’t have a lot of good to say about the former team running Motorola’s cell-phone business. “The management in mobile devices made calls that were dead wrong,” he said, referring not so much to massive price slashing on the popular Razr as to the slow-footed move into so-called 3G (for third-generation) multimedia phones. That particular slam was directed at a young guy named Ron Garriques, who headed that division, which is most of Motorola’s business today, before high-tailing it out of Motorola just before the you-know-what hit the fan. Garriques today is part of the crack team turning around Dell (DELL).

Zander didn’t completely distance himself from the Razr debacle, saying that “we were on a roll there” and that “if we had called some of these things right it would have been a phenomenal story, not just a good one.” I happened to write a story about the hugely successful team of engineers who created the Razr. Care to guess the names of two business guys who were, at best, on the periphery of that project and who craned really, really hard to get into the Fortune photo shoot for that article? Ed Zander and Ron Garriques.

I asked the 60-year-old Zander what he accomplished in his four years at Motorola. He stressed a stronger balance sheet, better financial discipline, a rejuvenated cable-equipment business, 13 acquisitions, a valuable patent portfolio, “thought leadership” on Wimax wireless technology, and a Motorola culture that now values fighting and winning. “It’s hard to see all the success when mobile devices isn’t doing well enough,” he says.

As for Brown, who is 47, I’ve known him since he was a junior executive at Ameritech, where his big brother Dick was vice-chairman. (See Colin Barr’s amusing take on Brown’s big bro.) Brown will be completely different from Zander. He’s equally ambitious but wears his ambition more quietly. (Fortune presciently identified Brown as a rising star nearly two years ago.) When I asked Brown what he’ll do as CEO, he instead focused on what he’s done this year as president of Motorola, primarily changing out senior executives in his biggest units as well as mounting a continued attack on Motorola’s cost-structure. I asked him what advice brother Dick had given him. He said his brother told him being CEO would be the best and worst jobs at the same time.

In contrast with Zander, there was little joviality in Brown’s voice. He’s got a big job ahead of him.