Mr Blackburn, who held the same post at Leeds, was chosen after an extensive search by headhunters in and beyond the financial service sector.
Although he has a background in banking and credit cards, Halifax emphasised that he was not being brought in to gear up the society for an Abbey National-style flotation.
Jon Foulds, Halifax's chairman, said: 'Mike Blackburn is ideally placed to build on the culture and values of the Halifax and to take the society forward from its extremely strong position in the financial services industry. The emphasis will be on continuity.'
In the five years since Mr Blackburn left Access to head Leeds, he has built up a strong treasury team and launched credit cards at the society.
He was paid pounds 225,000 a year at Leeds, the fifth-largest society, a salary on a par with that of the chief executive of Halifax.
He leaves Leeds at the end of this week and will start work at Halifax before Mr Birrell retires in mid-August on his 60th birthday. Mr Birrell, who started his working life at Halifax as an accountant, has held the post of chief executive for four years.
There were several internal candidates challenging Mr Blackburn, but the Halifax board made it clear that it was going to conduct a wider trawl for the right candidate. 'The beauty of having someone from a large building society is that the learning curve will be very short,' a Halifax spokesman said.
Mr Blackburn, 51, is married with four children. He is a director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Yorkshire and Humberside Arts.
Roger Boyes, Leeds' finance director, is taking over as acting chief executive.Reuse content