ZURICH Swisscom's chief executive Carsten Schloter was found dead at his home near Freiburg on Tuesday morning and initial investigations suggest that he killed himself, police said.
The Swiss telecoms group said that out of consideration for his family no further details were being disclosed. The head of Swisscom's domestic operations, Urs Schaeppi, would take over running the company temporarily.
"We can confirm that the first elements of the investigation make us think it was a suicide. It is impossible to say at this stage how long the investigation will take," said Pierre-Andre Waeber, spokesman at the cantonal police in Freiburg.
Schloter's biggest decision after becoming CEO in 2006 was the acquisition, a year later, of Italian broadband network operator Fastweb to counter lackluster growth in Switzerland, where Swisscom faced price pressure and increasing competition.
Swisscom later wrote down 1.3 billion euros ($1.72 billion), when Fastweb's value slid during the euro zone debt crisis, and Schloter admitted overpaying for the deal.
More recently, Switzerland's competition body said it had opened a probe into Swisscom after a rival suggested it abused its market position in broadband internet for business clients.
But overall, the German-born Schloter, 49, left Swisscom in a far stronger position than many of its European rivals.
Swisscom's majority owner, the Swiss government, expressed shock over Schloter's death.
"Swisscom has lost an excellent CEO, and Swiss business a defining personality," said Doris Leuthard, the cabinet minister for the environment, transportation, energy and communications.
Swisscom is seen as a haven for investors as it regularly pays a healthy dividend and because mobile competition in Switzerland has been less fierce than in other markets. Bern-based Swisscom also is not subject to EU regulations.
Swisscom has also been less hard-hit by the challenge from specialized cable companies, which can provide internet services at speeds often five times faster than competing services from traditional telecom companies.
Liberty Global's push into Europe and a so-called "quad-play" of services offering TV, broadband, mobile and fixed-line telephony have caught on rapidly in markets such as France and Spain, but made slower gains in Switzerland.
In an interview last year, Schloter told a television chat show host that his biggest disappointment was the distance between him and his three young children, whom he saw far less frequently due to the breakdown of his marriage.
In one of his last interviews, Schloter described himself as a victim of modern communication, always on the go, and said it was all too easy to get lost in the stream of information.
"I find it increasingly difficult to unwind," Schloter, who told the Schweiz am Sonntag newspaper in an interview in May.
Shares in the company closed down 0.6 percent at 414.7 Swiss, slightly lagging the blue-chip sector index.
"This is very sad news, but I don't think it dramatically changes the positioning of the group," Espirito Santo analyst Andrew Hogley said.
"It wasn't one where the CEO completely led everything, and there's a relatively solid management team the next level down." Hogley rates the stock at sell with a 300 franc target price.
Before joining Swisscom, Schloter, who was fluent in French and English as well as his native German, worked for Mercedes and debitel in France and Germany.
($1 = 0.7580 euros)
(Reporting by Caroline Copley and Katharina Bart; Silke Koltrowitz and Alice Baghdjian contributed reporting; Editing by Jane Merriman and Anthony Barker)