Sprint ends this year as it began, heading into a round of layoffs measuring in the thousands and budget cuts reaching billions. In between, the wireless company made some big hires.
Four men joined the executive team from posts abroad — Australia, Canada, Austria and Brazil.
Their mission is to help chief executive Marcelo Claure and the remaining incumbents break Sprint free of its sagging fortunes to become a disruptive competitor. In more human terms, they’ll have a large say over which spending stops and whose names fall off payrolls.
They also give flesh to the promise that Claure made last November: to bring “world class leaders” who “have done this before” to the company’s Overland Park campus.
He came up with:
▪ Tarek Robbiati, a multilingual finance man who had been CEO of a Hong Kong wireless carrier for its Australian parent company Telstra International Group.
▪ Kevin Crull, the Ohio-born president of a Canadian media business, who turned Sprint down until he lost his job over an unwelcome intrusion into news coverage.
▪ Günther Ottendorfer, a selfie-loving technology executive whose wireless industry resume reads like a list of features in the Sprint network.
▪ Roger Solé, another multilingual executive who led marketing for Brazil’s second biggest wireless carrier, which has millions more subscribers than Sprint.
Their arrival already has transformed Sprint’s management along with Claure’s first hire, senior vice president of communications Doug Michelman, who joined the company last year from Visa.
A steady stream of departures continues. Claure plans to leave vacant Michael Schwartz’s post as senior vice president for corporate strategy and development since his departure early this month.
On Monday, Claure named Jorge Gracia as the company’s general counsel starting in January. He will lead regulatory and legal matters, replacing longtime executive Charles Wunsch.
As it stands, the Sprint executive team is roughly half new, half old guard. But more changes are coming.
Claure promises changes in how Sprint seeks and serves customers in a second wave that he called a tsunami. He’s opted for a regional approach starting next year that will put 19 key cities under the control of individual market presidents.
The watchword for all this activity is transformation, changing the way Sprint does business. And Claure’s big four hires are playing key roles in designing the new Sprint that emerges.
Collectively, they’ve come here as strangers — unknown to one another, unknown to the standing Sprint team they joined and largely unknown to the U.S. telecom industry.
None of the four has experience in the United States besides Crull, who was at AT&T a decade ago.
But that’s kind of the point.
“They’re trying to put together a dream team from outside the U.S. to take a fresh look at the U.S. market and how to compete and how to run Sprint differently,” said Berge Ayvazian, a principal consultant at Wireless 20/20.
That’s not too far from Claure’s explanation of how each fits the standard he’d set a year ago. They’ve been “winners” at their previous companies and part of turnarounds that produced “challengers and disruptors in their countries,” he said.
The shared foreign element of these men further makes Sprint’s executive suite transformation stand out.
Non-U.S. leadership is common among global brand companies such as Coca-Cola and at international banking firms that compete in global financial centers in London and Hong Kong.
Not so much in U.S. telecom, which essentially is a domestic industry.
“What Sprint is doing is unique,” said John Farish, with the recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates, which has worked for Sprint to find and land talent.
The international flavor of Claure’s new hires also reflect the realities of Sprint’s circumstances.
Telecom executives move more freely around Europe and the globe than their U.S. counterparts do at home. Executive contracts here are rife with non-compete clauses that prohibit talent from quitting to work for rivals until after a set period of time has passed.
Claure is waiting now for the non-compete period to run out so a former Verizon regional president, Mariano Legaz, can start as Sprint’s chief procurement officer.
Not that importing executive talent to America is easy.
Solé came to Sprint from TIM Brazil but is a citizen of Spain. He said he had to get letters from 10 CEOs or company funders to establish his bona fides to become Sprint’s senior vice president of marketing, innovation and the Hispanic market.
The effort earned him a type O-1 visa. These usually are used by non-U.S. actors and entertainers to work here but are available to any “aliens of extraordinary ability.” Robbiati and Ottendorfer also came here under O-1 visas.
Outsiders say the abilities that four men displayed abroad will play well here, at least with a little help.
Experience in Australia — which Robbiati and Ottendorfer each have — directly translates to the U.S. market, said Susan Welsh de Grimaldo, director of wireless operator strategies at Strategy Analytics Inc. Downunder has extensive 4G coverage and the same LTE technology and fiber optics found in the United States.
“You do have to learn the ins and outs of the U.S. market and the U.S. consumer,” she said, “but you’ll be working with teams who know a lot of that.”
Claure’s tsunami means jobs are changing for executives he had tapped a year ago. He has named Jaime Jones to become one of four area presidents dividing up the nation for responsibility over how Sprint seeks and serves customers. Sprint also will name market presidents in 19 cities.
Jones, a 20-year Sprint veteran who worked his way up from United Telephone in Florida, currently heads sales to high-value consumers and small-to-medium businesses. He said the reforming team’s mission is to make Sprint the No. 1 carrier. And that requires knowing where it came from and what is needed to close the gap with rivals.
“Am I helping to be the bridge to that? I hope so,” Jones said.
The remade senior management team, he said, has become more collaborative than any he has seen while doing a dozen different jobs for 14 different bosses under four CEOs at Sprint.
Daily sales meetings and twice-monthly “team-lead” sessions typically bring all parties together for input on whatever issues are on the table.
“It’s great to point to Tarek and a get a view from Telstra, or Günther to get a view of what is happening in Austria,” Jones said.
Fresh eyes, for all the value they bring, also carry costs.
The large U.S. wireless market is a world unto itself, creating a learning curve for the new Sprint executives.
“The regulations are different. The history is different. The competitive dynamics are different. The consumer behavior is different,” said analyst Paul de Sa with Bernstein Research.
And, de Sa said, Sprint’s imported management team members lack that connection with Sprint’s employees, who have largely spent their careers in the U.S. telecom world.
Add it up, and the costs outweigh the benefits, at least by de Sa’s math.
Change at the top perhaps was inevitable. New CEOs typically want to assemble their own teams, bring in lieutenants and juggle the duties of those they keep to fit the new boss’s needs.
Claure’s work on the team has been in part a house cleaning. Some of the Sprint leadership he found in mid-2014 had “been at this way too long,” he said.
He also said he couldn’t expect the team that had been in charge while Sprint was losing subscribers in large numbers to suddenly turn things around just because he was now at the helm.
“We needed to bring in new blood,” Claure said.