E.spire Communications Inc.'s leadership is shifting, as its founder steps down and the telecommunications company continues its search for a new chief executive.

The Annapolis Junction-based company announced a new chairman, William R. Huff, on Tuesday to replace retiring founder, chairman and chief executive Anthony J. Pompliano, 61, who came back from semi-retirement to lead the company in 1998 and retired from the company last Friday.

The change does not reflect a major shift in business strategy, according to Peggy Disney, spokeswoman for the company. "Tony has some very strong management in place, and Bill Huff is a financial person, so he many look at the company from a different point of view," but Chief Operating Officer Dennis J. Kern controls 75 percent of day-to-day operations, and his leadership will provide institutional continuity, she said.

Huff, who was named to the board of directors last fall, founded and controls the Huff Alternative Income Fund, an investment management company and E.spire's largest shareholder. Huff's fund owns about 30 percent of E.spire's outstanding common shares.

Also joining the board this week were Joseph Thornton, counsel to W.R. Huff Asset Management Co. LLC, and George Schmitt, president of Omnipoint Communications Services LLC and an executive with Bethesda wireless company Omnipoint Corp. Thornton and Schmitt assumed two vacancies on the board.

E.spire's revenue has grown from $1.4 million in 1995 to $156.7 million during fiscal 1998, but the company has yet to turn a profit. Disney said the company, which now employs about 1,500 people, plans to be profitable by the middle of this year.

E.spire, founded in mid-1993, builds its own fiber-optic telecommunications networks and offers Internet access, data transmission, and local and long-distance voice communications on that network for small to medium-size businesses. The company, which operates primarily in the South, is in 38 domestic markets, including New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

E.spire also owns a network-development unit, ACSI Network Technologies, also based in Annapolis Junction.

The regional Bell companies are E.spire's main competition, Disney said. E.spire's advantage is that it can customize telecommunications packages and offer discounts of 20 percent to 30 percent over the competition, she said.