Business

Future Sprint boss John Legere, T-Mobile’s un-CEO: Is that a show or his real self?

A merger deal with T-Mobile. A new CEO. A profit — at last — after 11 years of losses. Sprint employees stand in a whirlwind.

And the biggest gust may lie ahead.

If all goes according to plan, Sprinters will learn to call John Legere “boss.”

The 59-year-old CEO of T-Mobile will need no introduction.

Sprint employees — and customers — know the long hair, magenta "-T-" shirt and black outerwear. They've heard the profane language, seen the sharp social media jabs, observed the sophomoric antics. Legere wears all of it like a work uniform.

There was Legere, for example, holding up two fingers behind Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure’s head like rabbit ears for a photo shoot during their merger tour on Wall Street. Others routinely get the same treatment.



What the Sprint world may not be able to divine just yet is whether Legere’s public persona is more show or self.

“I think it’s self, unquestionably self,” said Stephen Scherr, CEO of Goldman Sachs Bank USA, who has known Legere for about 15 years.

Legere's public presence reflects a passion for his mission at T-Mobile and how he excites its workforce and consumers. Underneath is the same bright, talented business operator Scherr says he knew when he provided a reference for Legere as T-Mobile searched for a new CEO in 2012.

It was a different time for Legere. Different job. Different uniform.

“That was knowing John when John was more of a suit than the way in which people come to know John now,” Scherr said.

Legere had joined T-Mobile after a decade at fiber optic network operator Global Crossing Ltd. As it fell into bankruptcy, Legere became CEO and steered it out of ruin and into a $3 billion buyout.

Like many in the telecom world, Legere earned his stripes at AT&T — even working for Dan Hesse, former Sprint CEO, when they both were there.

As much as Hesse and Legere share roots, Legere provides a sharp contrast to Claure, who is stepping aside as Sprint's CEO to push for the merger of the two companies.

Analysts put roughly 50-50 odds, or less, on the merger getting approval from the antitrust side of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission. Sprint stopped short of seeking approval during its 2014 campaign after Washington made clear that approval wasn't coming.

In Claure, Sprinters have been led by an immigrant billionaire who made his money from cellphone supplier Brightstar, which he co-founded in Miami in 1997. Claure, 47, owns a soccer team in his home country of Bolivia and is part of the Miami Major League Soccer franchise led by David Beckham.

Legere was born and raised in Fitchburg, Mass., a community of about 40,000 in the northern part of the state. His father worked for the government and his mother was a nurse, a T-Mobile spokesman said.

Legere's education included a business degree from the University of Massachusetts, master's degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Fairleigh Dickinson University, a private school in New Jersey, and completion of the Harvard Business School's management development program.

Both men have been well paid as CEOs in the highly competitive wireless world, earning more than $20 million a year in pay, bonuses and stock compensation. Claure's total compensation dipped more recently to just under $7.5 million, though his compensation for the company's recently ended fiscal year is not yet available.

What Legere found at T-Mobile in September 2012 was a moribund No. 4 wireless carrier. Its Germany-based owner had tried to sell the business to AT&T — for $39 billion. Instead, U.S. officials blocked the deal in 2011, cheered on by Sprint’s boss at the time, Hesse.

The big story in telecom that fall, however, wasn’t Legere’s arrival at T-Mobile. It was the deal at Sprint.

In October 2012, Tokyo-based SoftBank Group announced its agreement to buy control of the No. 3 U.S. wireless carrier.

From the beginning, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son planned to buy T-Mobile next and fold them together into a No. 3 competitor with enough customers and ambition to take on industry giants Verizon and AT&T.

Instead, Legere donned his new uniform and T-Mobile launched its UnCarrier marketing campaign. Sprinters watched, almost helplessly, as T-Mobile attracted millions of new subscribers.

Their rival’s growth flipped the rankings, making T-Mobile No. 3.

More important, T-Mobile’s success under Legere turned the tables on Sprint. T-Mobile is the buyer in the deal announced last weekend.

For his part, Legere had the CEO job at the proposed combined company sewn up years ago. When SoftBank openly campaigned in 2014 to buy T-Mobile, expectations were nearly universal that Legere would lead the merged companies, not Hesse.

T-Mobile’s success owes perhaps as much to Legere’s branding as it does to T-Mobile’s UnCarrier branding. He turned in the suits and short hair for the un-CEO he has become.

Legere tapped social media and corporate events to perfect the in-your-face, attention-grabbing, gratuitously profane counter-corporate culture of T-Mobile.

He has made a personal brand of it and has been recognized for it.

Entrepreneur Grant Cardone held up Legere as a poster child for the cause of CEO brands in Forbes.

“At the end of the day, a company can only be so interesting. Look at John Legere, he’s got more (Twitter) followers than T-Mobile does,” Cardone said.

Legere’s take on that? He called it a “great read,” on Twitter, of course.

Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins wrote last week that Legere rivals President Donald Trump “for Twitter prowess and easy vulgarity.”

Legere's vulgar side has backfired, as when he found himself apologizing for saying Verizon and AT&T were raping customers and using the F-word to describe the two wireless companies.

The Legere brand includes his personalized sessions on Periscope, the live video streaming app. He self-casts his runs, sometimes "giving shit away" to viewers who remember what he said during a previous session.

Sundays are spent around the kitchen for Legere’s reportedly widely followed Slow Cooker Sundays. And who’s holding the camera? According to The Wall Street Journal, one of Legere’s daughters, or sometimes T-Mobile Executive Vice President David Carey.

If Carey’s attendance seems out of place, consider what T-Mobile says about Slow Cooker Sundays, Legere’s Twitter posts and his other social media moments.

As the company reminded investors on Tuesday, Legere’s social media activity is a “means of disclosing information about the company and its services and for complying with its disclosure obligations under Regulation FD.” The fair disclosure regulation ensures that all investors have equal access to the same important information.

An integral part of the boss’s uniform.

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