Marcelo Claure puts his finger to puckered lips, playfully pretending to shush Sprint employees at a doorway ahead of him.
Sprint’s celebrity CEO is about to make his grand entrance.
An instant later, Claure passes through dozens of fired-up employees who line a long hallway at the company’s Overland Park campus. High-fives land from both sides. Flashing cellphones capture the moment. One employee bops the boss on the shoulder with an inflated thunderstick.
It’s time for the May town hall meeting, the quarterly update for Sprinters. A few hundred have packed the auditorium where Claure walks on stage. Many more watch on video and computer screens throughout the company.
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This will add more than an hour to Claure’s already long work schedule. But it’s time well spent. He’s here to pick up a workforce that just learned Sprint lost $3.3 billion in a year and is losing the race with rival T-Mobile to see which is America’s No. 3 wireless company.
Saving Sprint is the biggest challenge of Claure’s already impressive life. But he is a man in a hurry. Having lived his whole life practically nonstop, Claure sees a short-time horizon at Sprint.
“What I know is I got hired to do a job, and I want that job to be completed in three to five years,” he said.
Kansas City met the tall Bolivian last August when he replaced longtime chief and telecom industry veteran Dan Hesse. The new man at Sprint’s helm had traveled the world to build his own business. Here was a natural entrepreneur driven to work hard. A self-made billionaire relocating from fast-paced Miami.
The Star has since taken a deeper look at Claure and found a more complex portrait.
He’s a middle kid who didn’t learn English until the ninth grade. He bulled his way to success in business through hard work and a willingness to throw a sharp elbow — at rivals and partners alike.
Claure, 44, also plays hard, packing his personal calendar with major sporting events, black tie galas and dirt bike rides. He has a penchant for big reunions, has staked out favorite restaurants around town and often mixes work into time with his five children and wife Jordan. He’s sacrificed attending games played by his Bolivian soccer team to focus more on Sprint.
In the year since Claure took command, his impact on Sprint has been deep.
He ordered thousands of layoffs. He tore up department budgets and shut down a massive marketing campaign that featured a talking hamster. He doubled the company’s retail outlets, rolled out a phone delivery fleet of yellow-and-black Sprintmobiles and introduced the first national phone leasing plan in America, a move even the Un-carrier team at T-Mobile has copied.
Sprint’s turnaround, Claure now says, depends on making its network the best in the industry, slashing its spending to competitive levels and attracting enough customers to turn a profit.
Recent progress has been encouraging to Claure and to more industry observers. The stock price has risen sharply recently. And just this month he won four more years on his contract at Sprint.
Still, Claure admits the job has been harder than he had imagined. He sees a lot of work ahead, and progress gets only more difficult from here on.
Kansas City has a lot riding on the outcome. Sprint not only is a major local employer, it also works with many area businesses and casts a long philanthropic shadow.
“He’s the best — maybe the last best — chance we have for Sprint to be turned around as an independent entity, or it’s going to be subsumed by someone else,” said Kansas City banker Peter deSilva, who became Claure’s first business friend in town.
Claure’s early years
Life for Claure (pronounced CLOW-ray) began on the road.
His father, Rene Marcelo Claure, worked as a geologist for the United Nations’ diplomatic service. His job and the family was stationed in Guatemala on Dec. 9, 1970, when Raúl Marcelo Claure was born. Like his father, Claure goes by his middle name.
Many accounts, including previous reports by The Star and many who know him personally, mistakenly say he was born in La Paz, Bolivia. Claure said his father’s U.N. job status secured his own Bolivian citizenship.
“I’m Bolivian by parents. I’m Bolivian by birth. I just happened to be born inside Guatemala,” said Claure, who also has U.S. citizenship.
His father’s job, and the family, kept moving through Claure’s early years, including time in Morocco and the Dominican Republic. The job also provided enough money to get three children — though not Claure — into the expensive American schools where the family lived.
In addition to an older sister and younger brother, Claure grew up with a young aunt, his mother’s sister, who was roughly his age. Those three attended the local American schools, while Claure went to public or Catholic schools.
Mostly, school was boring.
“I could get away without studying and get good grades,” he said.
Other activities occupied him. In his youth, Claure sold marbles at the schoolyard. He usually tells how, at 9 or 10 years old, he decided to sell his mother’s clothes. The venture lasted only a few months when, as Claure told a Kansas City audience in June, his mother came home early one day.
He didn’t start to learn English until the ninth grade, after his sister graduated and he was able to attend an American school in Bolivia.
In high school, Claure said, he sometimes was a troublemaker, getting suspended a few times.
“I was the leader, always,” he quipped.
But he was no longer a good student and that, plus family finances, limited his college choices. He made it to a U.S. school, the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“Living in Lowell was rough because Lowell is a rough place,” Claure said. “So I worked real hard that year, I got really good grades and then I transferred.”
He moved to Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., now Bentley University, and received a bachelor of science degree in economics and finance in 1993.
The entrepreneurial start
Wherever Claure has gone, he thought like an entrepreneur, as though it came naturally or was bred by his circumstances in life.
Money was tight during Claure’s college days, though he traveled home when he could. His first real business popped up when he started buying and reselling other students’ frequent-flier miles.
Claure also has told how he walked into a Boston cellphone store 20 years ago and walked out an owner.
Cellular Solutions was run by Enrique Darer, who remembers “an energetic guy” who stopped in to shop at closing time one Saturday. And Claure was being difficult.
“No matter what price I gave him, he wanted a lower price,” Darer recalled two decades later. “I said, ‘Why don’t you buy into this company and therefore you get a free phone?’ And that’s what happened.”
Claure did more than buy in. He took charge.
Darer said his new partner hustled businesses for permission to pitch cellphones to their employees. Claure hired employees to call all those potential customers. Claure delivered phones in his car. Claure opened more stores. He created a second company, USA Wireless, to add another cellular service to their offering.
“He had a tremendous amount of initiative,” Darer said.
Success led to a job in California before Claure responded to his biggest entrepreneurial impulse. In September 1997, he formed Brightstar Corp. with David Peterson, who had worked for a big cellphone distribution company and joined Claure at the smaller California business.
Their idea was to break into the distribution business themselves, and more specifically to challenge the industry giants, Peterson’s old employer Cellstar and its rival Brightpoint.
They settled on a marriage of the giants’ names, and Brightstar Corp. had instant industry recognition.
The men set out with hopes of selling about $500,000 worth of merchandise in Brightstar’s first few months. Instead, they sold $14 million in three months, and Peterson credits Claure.
“He’s a rainmaker,” Peterson said. “He makes things happen, for sure.”
Brightstar surpassed the $1 billion milestone in 2003, only its sixth full year. Much of that business came in Latin America.
With Claure as the senior owner and chief executive, Brightstar grew into the largest Latino-owned corporation in the United States.
Ernst & Young named Claure Entrepreneur of the Year in 2001 and added him to its Hall of Fame in 2010. Three years later, Claure was one of the judges picking new winners.
Claure is one of only 72 members of the Immigrant Entrepreneur Hall of Fame maintained by the Immigrant Learning Center Inc. in Massachusetts. Claure’s name stands alongside American household icons James L. Kraft and Adolphus Busch, as well as technology giants Sergey Brin of Google Inc. and Min Kao of Garmin Ltd. He’s listed in the hall as the only Guatemalan. It lists no Bolivians.
Last year, when Claure sold Brightstar to run Sprint, its revenues had reached $10 billion. That’s twice as large as fast-growing Cerner Corp., the North Kansas City electronic medical records business.
Sprint, with $34.5 billion in revenues, is the only Kansas City area company bigger than Claure’s Brightstar.
Mayor Sly James of Kansas City wants Claure’s help at the other end of the corporate spectrum. Claure could do so much to boost this city’s entrepreneurial aspirations, particularly in connecting startups to investment capital.
“His influence, his personality, his profile, his position could be extremely helpful,” James said. “I’d like to see him make a commitment to Kansas City that’s lasting, whether or not he’s physically located here.”
A driven man
Claure’s early years and entrepreneurial success account for only part of what landed him the job at Sprint.
A fuller biography finds moments that highlight his highly driven nature, his ability to spot opportunity and his willingness to capitalize on others’ mistakes.
Even when Claure hasn’t been the boss, he has driven himself like one, said Tom Bommarito, who accounts for Claure’s stint in California. He was the last person to hire Claure before he came to Sprint.
Bommarito is of the St. Louis area car dealership Bommaritos. He’s a vice president of the family’s Bommarito Automotive Group.
Back in the mid-1990s, if you sold someone a car, you also tried to sell the person a car phone. Bommarito’s California business supplied cellphones to dealerships and stores, including Darer’s in Boston.
It’s how he spotted Claure. When sales at Darer’s usually sleepy store jumped, Bommarito’s inquiries led him to the energetic Bolivian, then in his mid-20s. The job moved Claure west and higher up the cellphone supply chain.
“He did a great job,” Bommarito recalled. “We activated over 10,000 lines a month, and he was in charge of all that activation business.”
Bommarito said Claure was tenacious and a good negotiator.
“He gets up very early and stays late. You’re not going to outwork Marcelo. No.”
Said Peterson said of their Brightstar years, “I’ve seen him have an entire workforce want to work well into the night.”
Others trace Claure’s success to his ability to seize opportunities. Consider Jaime Narea’s empty desk.
Narea had left his job at Motorola, Brightstar’s big supplier, to start his own company called Narbitec. It would use wireless technology to spread home telephone service to Latin America beyond the reach of phone lines. The connections were wireless, but the phones were fixed in the homes like traditional phones.
Claure spotted the empty desk, learned about Narea’s plans and persuaded him to start his company within Brightstar and split its ownership 50-50.
“We sold over 10 million phones in Venezuela, Mexico and many other countries that needed this type of product,” said Narea, who still works at Brightstar.
Claure also has turned others’ mistakes into opportunities.
Around the time Brightstar’s sales were breaching the $1 billion mark, Claure was boasting about the company’s great start to a trio of potential investors. A writer for Inc. magazine chronicled the account and called it a “just-this-side-of-shady scheme.”
In a nutshell, Claure and Peterson persuaded Bell Canada to buy more phones from Motorola than it needed. Brightstar would buy them from Bell Canada and resell them in the U.S. market. It worked because Motorola charged lower prices in Canada than in the United States, leaving room for Brightstar to profit.
“It took us one week to figure it out,” Claure said, according to the 2004 Inc. article. “We were making millions of sales in weeks.”
By the end of 2003, Peterson was eager to cash in. He struck a deal to sell almost a fourth of Brightstar’s stock back to the company. It was nearly all of his shares and produced a $5.9 million payday.
It was a sour payday.
“I’m still a little bitter about it,” Peterson said. “But you can’t look back. I made the deal. I should have been more open-eyed.”
The men disagree about why the deal turned sour. Public documents from Brightstar make plain enough that it was severely lopsided against Peterson.
At the same time that Peterson was selling his shares back, Claure was raising money from private equity investors for Brightstar. Both deals required putting a price tag on Brightstar to know what individual shares were worth.
Set side by side, those price tags showed that Peterson got less than 12 cents on the dollar compared with the value that the investors were willing to place on Brightstar. Like salt in a wound, the documents revealed that proceeds from the private investors also covered the tab paid out to Peterson.
Claure said Brightstar simply was able to raise money at a much higher valuation than Peterson had agreed to.
“We were in different stages,” Claure said. “David wanted to get out, get out, get out. … He didn’t make a good business deal.”
Claure and Peterson agree on one other point. Peterson collected a lot more money when he later sold the small amount of Brightstar stock he had kept.
And Peterson, now a bit wiser, said he’d go into business with Claure again.
“He’s like a business savant,” Peterson said. “He can see an opportunity and make it work.”
A cosmopolitan man
If there’s a joke to be made from Claure’s arrival in Kansas City, it would be that he was bound to make it here sooner or later. He’s been most everywhere else.
Travel was practically a full-time job building Brightstar. It ultimately was doing business in 120 countries and from offices in 50 countries.
One of the jokes Claure does make is that he could have dinner in Hong Kong and dinner in Los Angeles on the same night because of his travel across time zones.
“I love to get out. I’ve been a world traveler for 17 years,” Claure said.
Claure’s cosmopolitan life shined no brighter than at his 40th birthday party. Invitations flew to 1,000 addressees, and Claure said about 850 came to the Miami club he had rented out.
Peterson and Bommarito were there. Narea said he counted guests from Australia, Peru, Colombia and Europe and was amazed to see Claure’s vast collection of friends.
One guest was Manuel Rocha, a former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia who got to know Claure in Miami. He counts Claure, at 6 feet 6 inches, as the tallest Bolivian he knows.
Rocha said Claure has a magnitude that made him too big for Bolivia, a poor country whose entire economy produces about as much income as Sprint generates in revenues each year.
Claure’s move to Kansas City surprised Rocha. He hadn’t realized Sprint’s headquarters were here, but then surmised that the job’s broad span would make life here more suitable for Claure.
“If you told me Sprint was something that was strictly Kansas City or Kansas or Midwest-related, I would say our friend is not going to last very long,” Rocha said.
Life in Kansas City
Claure acknowledges he didn’t think much of Kansas City at first. He took the job after Masayoshi Son, his boss at Softbank Group Corp., the Tokyo-based owner of Sprint, gave him the OK to commute from Florida.
But he soon uprooted his family, saying goodbye to the ocean, his boat and his favorite Miami restaurants, and embraced the midcontinent, real winters and an admittedly slower pace.
His Miami Beach family now calls Mission Hills home, and Claure turned much of Kansas City — from Westport’s Bluestem restaurant to the deck of the Liberty Memorial — into his personal backyard.
In a November address to the Kansas City Area Development Council, he said he needed to become “entrenched in the community.”
“I wanted to make sure that I became one of you,” he told the crowd.
Marcelo and Jordan Claure rented at first but have since bought a house in Mission Hills. They have kept their Miami Beach home, which Claure said he sees less and less often. Their two school-age children attend private school locally. Claure has two older children from a previous marriage attending college in Florida.
In April, Jordan gave birth to their third daughter, Savannah Celeste Claure, at Shawnee Mission Medical Center.
Three weeks later, the couple made their public debut in Kansas City’s philanthropic circles. Claure had been rejecting charitable requests — to keep his focus on Sprint — until deSilva, the banker at UMB Financial Corp., told him about the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault.
The nonprofit and Sprint have had a long relationship, and the Claures, with three daughters at home, embraced the cause.
Claure and deSilva each turned to their companies and other contacts to spearhead MOCSA’s fundraising luncheon. Their efforts brought in $689,000, easily the highest total in 20 years of fundraising and 144 percent more than MOCSA’s goal.
Kansas City can expect that kind of impact from Claure, but not often.
“I’d rather participate in fewer things but do them well,” he said.
Much of Kansas City’s business community, however, still is trying to get a glimpse of the man. A recent Monday morning monthly coffee hosted by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, which typically draws 25 or 30 members, attracted 120 to see Claure.
He does pop up from time to time.
Claure “fixed” one Sprint customer’s phone by turning on its Wi-Fi connection during a Royals game at Kauffman Stadium. A Sprint employee ran into the couple at the recent Rolling Stones concert at Arrowhead Stadium, at which Claure sported a Miami T-shirt.
He has a favorite corner table at Osteria Il Centro, the Italian restaurant south of the Country Club Plaza, and they know him at Novel in Kansas City’s west side.
This year, Claure chose Kansas City for his traditional Fourth of July holiday gathering for friends and family that he has hosted in cities around the world.
He invited 100 friends and family from Bolivia, Argentina, London, Peru, Hong Kong, Miami, Los Angeles and other cities. That Friday night, he rented out the Bluestem restaurant on Westport Road, where his party of 65 enjoyed five courses, soccer chants, Latin music and a cake presented to Claure’s father.
The weekend visitors enjoyed a Royals game and visits to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kansas City Zoo, as well as the National World War I Museum, which included a catered event on the deck of the Liberty Memorial. A pickup basketball game that weekend had both teams sporting Oklahoma City Thunder uniforms.
Then it was back to the Claure home, where the guest list grew to 300 and included Mayor James.
On another recent Sunday evening, the Claures capped a family vacation poolside at the Carriage Club on State Line Road. Claure said seeing his two girls playing with other children reminded him of his childhood in Bolivia.
“I think Kansas City is like Sprint. There is so much more to it than people think,” Claure said. “I miss, a little bit, the excitement and the speed of Miami. But it (Kansas City) more than makes it up by its people, by the quality of life. You live a good life here.”
Claure’s Twitter feed shows he also attended the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas in May, saw Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Cleveland in June and went dirt bike riding in Colorado in July. A vacation earlier this month took the Claures to Italy, though the Sprint executive said he still got in eight hours of work each day.
Trips to meet with Sprint chairman Son, whom Claure called “my big boss” on Twitter, add Tokyo to his itinerary.
Soccer trips to Bolivia are a thing of the past.
“I haven’t been to Bolivia to watch my team since I’ve taken this job, and we were champions this year,” Claure said with more disappointment than complaint in his voice.
At Sprint’s helm
Claure is taking swings at the same challenges that have hung over Sprint for years.
Its network is inferior to those of the wireless world’s leaders, Verizon and AT&T. Those companies have enough money for constant investments in their cellular systems. Sprint also spends more money per customer to run its business than its rivals do, making profits even harder to achieve.
As much as anything, Sprint suffers from too few customers. This is a business where size matters, and the two giants have about twice as many customers as Sprint’s 57.7 million. That’s twice as many bills to collect and cover the costs of running those expensive networks.
Adding to Sprint’s burden, T-Mobile has been winning its battle against many of the same problems. Millions of subscribers have switched to T-Mobile, so many that the company overtook Sprint and became the nation’s third-largest carrier at the end of June.
The switch gave T-Mobile CEO John Legere another chance to jab at Sprint on Twitter: “They’re really making moves over there at @sprint! Like the move from 3rd to 4th.”
It extended what has become a long string of social media slapfights between the two. The battles have been entertaining and have given Sprint employees a chance to cheer their boss, their company and themselves.
That T-Mobile passed Sprint is ironic because T-Mobile was supposed to be the answer to Sprint’s problems. Japanese billionaire Son bought Sprint two years ago expressly to put the two companies together and take on Verizon and AT&T.
But Washington regulators shot down Son’s merger plan and took away his confidence in Sprint’s future. That’s when Son hired Claure, and they embarked on 12 months of figuring things out.
Son now says he faced doubts, wondering whether he should write off his big American investment or, maybe, find a buyer. Instead, he and Claure came up with a new plan for this second-tier competitor to compete on its own in the cutthroat world of wireless phone service.
“I now see the strategy, how to turn around, I now see the path,” Son told The Star last week between work sessions on Sprint’s campus.
Claure boils down the turnaround plan to five fronts.
One, he wants to turn Sprint’s network into a competitive advantage.
Son helped create a plan to expand Sprint’s network of cell towers and smaller cellular sites, the company’s Next Generation project. Though a gifted salesman, Claure has worked hard to learn the technical details of Sprint’s complex network.
He’s also had to manage the sometimes tense interplay between engineers from SoftBank and Sprint. Former Sprint CEO Hesse, while declining to comment for this story, did acknowledge to The Star that he had asked Son to show more respect to Sprint employees.
Claure said Sprint’s headquarters now hosts meetings that once saw engineering teams from Tokyo and Overland Park converge in the San Francisco area.
Two, he plans to cut costs just as aggressively as he did in his first year at Sprint, when he ordered $1.5 billion stripped from budgets.
Three, he aims to strengthen the Sprint brand and what it is offering in the marketplace for a more effective appeal to consumers.
Four, he needs to find a way to finance the turnaround.
Early this month, SoftBank announced sketchy plans to create two new finance companies that would help keep Sprint from burning through its cash. Wall Street is waiting for details, with some calling it a solution and others calling it more debt.
Sprint’s overall plan, or rather its lack of detail, earned a shoulder shrug from analyst Paul de Sa.
“During the last 48 hours, Sprint revealed several dimensions of a new strategic plan, although (it) disclosed few details that would allow investors to get any sense of the plan’s potential impact,” he wrote recently in a note to clients of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.
Five, Claure is working to engage and motivate Sprint’s team.
He has largely rebuilt the management team. Most of Hesse’s lieutenants have left Sprint.
The new CEO runs Sprint as a hands-on leader, prying into details and pulling decisions close to his desk. It contrasts with Hesse’s style of setting strategy and direction while delegating more responsibility.
Daily “deep dives” that Claure takes on each of his five fronts have translated into long management sessions, sometimes disrupting others’ work schedules and holidays. Late-night phone calls and wee-hours emails seek answers from team leaders.
The new executives and officers hail from all over: San Francisco, South Carolina, Chicago and Dallas, as well as Brazil, Canada, Austria, Australia and Japan. And Claure has included a move to the Kansas City area with each job offer, his way of pushing Sprint and this community to be more cosmopolitan.
“It’s not that we’re recruiting foreigners. We’re doing global searches,” he told employees at a gathering earlier this month. “It will always make the city better. It will always make Sprint better because they bring a different set of experiences.”
Claure said he also is trying get employees to think like entrepreneurs, make the company fast, flexible and nimble. He instituted a “stupid rule” campaign that lets employees call out and change practices that don’t make sense.
Enthusiastic weekly emails from Claure seek to pump up employee pride and increase engagement. They recognize contributions by employees, trumpet Sprint’s actions in the marketplace, offer updates on strategy and chronicle his work travel schedule. He visits Sprint locations while on the road.
Celebrating victories is important to Claure, for example, with Beats and Brews sessions at least one Friday a month, during which employees can enjoy music, each other’s company and a few beers — regardless of what the lawyers think.
Claure also sits in on customer care lines to hear complaints. He frequently replies to unhappy Sprint customers who air their beefs on Twitter, offering sympathies and directing their problems to the head of Sprint’s care team.
Sprint indeed has shown progress in the last year. Exits by unhappy customers reached a record low this spring. For the first time in a long time, the company ended May, June and July with net increases in high-value cellphone customers.
Sprint’s network, though trailing industry leaders Verizon and AT&T, held an edge over T-Mobile in the 2015 nationwide rankings that network rating firm RootMetrics released last week. The tests compared how well networks handle calls, texts and Internet connection speeds, as well as reliability.
And Claure says he’s come to understand Sprint as he understood Brightstar.
“Now I know the details of Sprint and of this business and I’m involved in the front line,” he said. “I’m better equipped to run Sprint.”
A successful turnaround means Sprint stops losing money, Claure said. It means Sprint generates more cash than it spends. It means Sprint adds a “significant amount” of new customers every quarter. It means Sprint is set for a new wave of growth.
Success for Claure means it happens on his original three-to-five-year schedule. If he fails to fix the company by then, Claure figures he was the wrong guy for the job. Even if this turnaround works, he said it will be time for a better corporate manager to take charge.
Claure said he has no idea what happens after Sprint or how Kansas City would figure into his plans.
“The most important thing he can do for Kansas City is get it right,” said Bob Marcusse, president of the Kansas City Area Development Council. “A strong, healthy, growing Sprint will do more for Kansas City than just about anything else.”
Claure said he is mindful of the company’s 31,000 employees’ livelihoods as well as the company’s impact on jobs at other businesses doing work for Sprint.
But “it is also about my legacy,” Claure told The Star. “People will never remember the story of Marcelo at Brightstar, which, it was a pretty cool story. What people will remember is Marcelo’s passage at Sprint.”
The Star’s Hannah Ritchie Stinger contributed to this article.
Born in Guatemala, spends early years in Morocco, Dominican Republic, Bolivia
Sells mother’s clothes, until she finds out
Earns bachelor of science degree at Bentley College in economics and finance
Helps Bolivia national soccer team go to World Cup in United States
Buys into Boston cellphone store
Starts Brightstar Corp. in Miami with David Peterson
Divorced from Patricia Lara Claure
Marries Jordan Engard
Buys control of Club Bolívar soccer team, launches failed bid with FC Barcelona for Major League Soccer franchise in Miami
Publicly blasted by Bolivian soccer nemesis Carlos Chávez over World Cup events 18 years earlier
Tokyo-based SoftBank Group Corp. completes $21.6 billion acquisition of Sprint Corp.
SoftBank agrees to pay $1.26 billion for 57 percent of Claure’s Brightstar Corp.
Sprint names Claure to board of directors as “SoftBank designee”
Claure appointed CEO of Sprint, agrees to sell rest of Brightstar to SoftBank
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