Some investors are betting that Motorola ( MOT) operating chief Mike Zafirovski's next stop will be north of the border.

A year after he was passed over for the top job at Motorola, Zafirovski said Wednesday he would leave the cell-phone giant this month. Though the executive didn't offer any clue to his next step, some observers see a natural fit at troubled Nortel ( NT).

No matter where he ends up, the Macedonia native shouldn't have too much trouble finding his next big job, industry analysts say. In addition to the battle stripes he earned at Motorola, Zafirovski logged 24 years at executive talent mill General Electric ( GE).

Still, it's no surprise that Nortel would come to many minds as a possible destination for Zafirovski. The Brampton, Ontario, telecom-equipment maker is struggling to put a yearlong accounting scandal behind it. The company on Tuesday rolled out plans to replace five board members to help "turn the page" on this troubled chapter in its history.

"The guy would be high on the list" if Nortel were looking for a new CEO, says one analyst based in Canada. A Nortel representative declined to comment, while Motorola said simply that Zafirovski plans to "pursue a CEO position outside Motorola."

Heightening the speculation is the fact that Nortel CEO Bill Owens' popularity started to wane shortly after he was given the job of restoring credibility to the company last year. To be sure, Owens was thrust into a chaotic situation that included two sets of auditors and three different agency investigations. He had no role in the bookkeeping blunders but became the point man as the situation continued to intensify.

Still, a widening accounting morass combined with numerous filing delays, broken promises and a brush with delisting fueled criticism over the effectiveness of Nortel's new leader. Owens' critics add that his lack of telecom-equipment experience and limited public company leadership experience make him an unlikely long-term CEO for Nortel.

By contrast, Zafirovski spent four years at Motorola, starting as the head of the handset business and rising to the company's No. 2 spot in 2002 when predecessor Ed Breen took the CEO job at Tyco ( TYC). This put the math graduate from Pennsylvania's Edinboro College in line for the chief job at Motorola when Chris Galvin stepped down in late 2003.

But the board chose Ed Zander instead. Zander was a member of buyout firm Silver Lake Partners and former COO at Sun Microsystems ( SUNW). Though Zafirovski was disappointed by the decision, he said he would remain with the company.


Mike Zafirovski

Analysts and investors initially questioned how well the two hard chargers could work together. Zander joked on his first conference call that he and Zafirovski would "sit in the hot tub together" and "figure out what we like about each other."

A year later, industry analysts give Zafirovski credit for sticking with the job and helping to retool Motorola under its "seamless mobility" banner.

While Motorola had some critical stumbles in the all-important handset business under Zafirovski's watch, he is also credited for helping to tighten the organization by trimming businesses, cutting staff and lowering costs.

But some old cell-phone slip-ups have had lingering consequences. Motorola failed to offer a color camera phone during the 2003 holiday season, and a subsequent camera phone-supply shortage stung the business in 2004. The missteps helped Korean rivals like Samsung and LG swipe business and market share. Motorola slipped to third place behind Samsung in the third quarter ended September.

On Wednesday, Motorola slipped 9 cents to $16.56.