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Steve Raymund has proved to be a pillar of stability in an industry where change is the very fuel that keeps the apparatus humming.

For 19 years, Raymund has led with calm confidence and methodical precision what has become the world’s second largest IT distributor, Clearwater, Fla.-based Tech Data Corp. Now, the 50-year-old executive is stepping down as chief executive, though he plans to remain active as the $20 billion company’s chairman.

He gives up the post not because he is being forced to or as a result of poor financial performance, but because having spent half of his life working at the company his father Edward founded, Raymund wants to slow down a bit.

If anything, Raymund’s decision to step down is a sign of confidence. The distributor over the past year has faced some challenges in Europe, undertaking restructuring efforts and consolidating the work force there, but overall Tech Data is a solid company with a good record on Wall Street.

Tech Data’s stock price ticked up slightly following news of Raymund’s plans, and it was hovering at $41 per share on the day after the announcement. In comparison, the stock of Tech Data’s main rival, Ingram Micro Inc., the world’s largest IT distributor, was teetering at the $19-per-share mark.

Raymund’s timing in abdicating the CEO post indicates he believes European operations are on the right track, said Bob Anastasi, senior managing director of equity research at Raymond James and Associates, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“He would not do it if it were a bad time to do it,” Anastasi said.

Raymund is a singular executive in an industry with enough flashy characters and mercurial tempers to open a museum of personalities. Often credited, or perhaps accused, of being cerebral, he nonetheless speaks with plain-spoken articulateness and without pretense. You never have to wonder what he means.

Despite Raymund’s relative youth, Anastasi called him the elder statesman of the IT channel. And that’s because Raymund has had one of the longest runs as CEO in the industry.

He joined Tech Data in 1981 when the company had $2 million in sales and took over the chief executive post in 1986. With a hands-on—though not intrusive—style, Raymund steered the company through the channel’s changing currents and did battle with other distributors and direct-selling vendors, as well as with hybrid-model companies that sold to and simultaneously competed with VARs.

Those hybrid companies are gone now, and what was once a crowded field with dozens of distributors has whittled down to a handful of players.

Several were absorbed by Tech Data through acquisitions, notably the Munich-based Computer 2000 AG, which widened Tech Data’s reach in Europe, and Globelle Corp., which gave the company a stronghold in Canada. In typical Raymund fashion, the acquisitions were meticulously strategic.

During Raymund’s reign, well-established brands such as Compaq and Digital disappeared while others such as Netscape rose and fell and yet others such as Microsoft and Cisco only got bigger. Dot-coms took and left the world by storm, the corporate world survived Y2K, Europe became a Community and adopted a single currency, and the post-Sept. 11 recession came and went.

And, perhaps most significantly, e-commerce took off and changed everything. While some channel companies wondered what to do about electronic transactions, Raymund made an early investment in Web-based sales because he saw the inevitability of it.

“Steve’s been an incredibly valuable and influential voice for the channel over the last two decades,” said Ingram Micro CEO Greg Spierkel. In whatever capacity Raymund chooses to remain at Tech Data, Spierkel said, he will remain a huge influence.

Indeed, whoever succeeds Raymund has to contend with the specter of a man who in his quiet way has left a big mark on the industry. A search is under way and likely to last months. Anastasi said the winning candidate will have to have a lot of Raymund’s characteristics—smarts, people skills and vision.

It will be anything but easy to step into a position so synonymous with the man himself. Fortunately for his successor, Raymund will be on hand to provide guidance.