Turning to a businessman to lead one of the nation's seminal civil rights groups, the NAACP's board of directors announced Saturday that Bruce S. Gordon (search), a retired Verizon executive, will be its next president.

"Civil rights leaders throughout this country did what they did and died, so my generation has full responsibility to walk in the doors those brave people opened," Gordon said after the board voted. "It's fabulous, exciting, humbling."

Gordon was selected by a large majority of the board to succeed Kweisi Mfume (search), former U.S. representative and a candidate for Senate in Maryland who resigned abruptly in December. Several months later, a report surfaced that his personal relationships with NAACP (search) staffers had contributed to widespread mismanagement at national headquarters in Baltimore. One staff member threatened to sue.

Described as a top-notch leader and consensus-builder, Gordon, 59, began his career in 1968 as a management trainee at Bell of Pennsylvania (search). For 35 years, amid massive upheaval in the telecommunications industry, he helped the company navigate the string of mergers that led it to become Verizon Communications Inc. When he retired in December 2003, he was chief of Verizon's biggest division — retail markets.

Gordon's corporate background "means that he is accustomed to working within a system in which merit and achievement count the most," Julian Bond, chairman of the group's board of directors, said in an interview. "That was attractive to us. Not to say that the NAACP didn't have that. But with every step we've taken ... we wanted to move up. And we think he's going to bring us a quantitative move up."

Gordon said his first priorities will be to improve the organization's finances — its expenses have exceeded its income for the last two years, tax documents show — by working to build an endowment, increasing membership and pushing for more efficiency in operations.

His civil rights priorities include working toward greater economic equality, he said.

"People of color need to change and balance the trade deficit that exists between people of color and the rest of society," Gordon said.

A National Association for the Advancement of Colored People search committee invited Gordon to apply for the position in February. More than 250 candidates were considered, Bond said.

It became clear last week that Gordon was the only presidential candidate under consideration, a choice that marked a striking change for the NAACP. Most presidents have been political or religious leaders, or prominent figures from the civil rights movement.

"He's not a minister or a politician, but this man's been doing it all along," said Eric Cevis, a vice president in Verizon's retail division who has known Gordon since 1986. "He has a social accountability that he's been preaching for years."

Cevis said Gordon pioneered diversity efforts at Verizon for blacks and other minorities, consistently pushing the company to improve its hiring and promotion practices.

Gordon was born in Camden, N.J., and raised with four siblings by parents who were both educators and civil right activists.

He serves on boards of Southern Co. and Tyco International Ltd. and is a trustee of Gettysburg College and the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation. He was named one of Fortune magazine's 50 most powerful black executives in 2002 and executive of the year by Black Enterprise magazine in 1998.

"I think he's a godsend," said Leroy Warren, a board member from Silver Spring, Md., minutes after the board voted. "We need to get back to real civil rights and economic development. ... He has the intelligence to move forward."

After contract negotiations, Gordon is expected to be confirmed as president at the association's convention in July.