Their mission is to help 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.
Claure came up with four men who’ve joined the company’s Overland Park campus from posts abroad — Australia, Canada, Austria and Brazil.
▪ 50, chief financial officer
▪ Country of origin: Italian citizen, born in Lebanon
▪ Languages: English, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Arabic
▪ Succeeds: Joe Euteneuer
▪ Salary: $800,000
New chief financial officer Tarek Robbiati holds the purse strings for Sprint’s transformation. It’s a powerful post at a company with marching orders to justify every nickel spent and every name on the payroll.
Robbiati is astounded that Sprint takes in $32 billion a year and still can’t produce a profit.
“We could be a lot more efficient. A lot more efficient.”
What else would an admitted “bean counter” do? Some say plenty.
Robbiati does not fit the traditional financial officer’s role of “hand brake” on the creative marketers and network innovators, said Deena Shiff, who worked with him when both were at Australia-based Telstra International Group.
“He’s not just a numbers guy,” she said. “He’ll have a very open and creative mind because he’s been lots of places, and he’s seen lots of things.”
Robbiati’s education in France was in electronics and nuclear physics. As a consultant for Accenture, he worked in France, Argentina and London, where he switched to equity analyst covering telecom companies for Lehman Brothers.
Jumping into telecom directly, Robbiati worked for British-based Orange in London and Paris before joining Telstra as it rebuilt its network in Australia.
Telstra, in turn, sent him to Hong Kong as CEO of its wireless carrier CSL, one of five in a highly competitive market. There, Robbiati led a “rip and replace” of CSL’s wireless network that he said was more extensive than the disruptive one Sprint endured in the two years before Claure arrived.
Robbiati comes to Sprint from Australia’s FlexiGroup. He was CEO of the leasing company that financed cellphones, computers and other equipment. It’s a handy background for the first-of-its-kind cellphone lease financing deal Robbiati helped set up as a solution to Sprint’s tightening cash position.
The issues Robbiati said he faces at Sprint are lingering ones that his predecessor Joe Euteneuer and, before him, Bob Brust had raised. One change is the urgency brought on by Sprint’s now larger debt burden.
“I’m not sure I’m getting a different answer,” Robbiati said. “I have a lot more people listening because we have to push hard on this one.”
Aside: He’s the “most global” person Roger Solé knows. “He talks about Australia … His name is kind of Lebanese. But he refers to himself as Italian. And I know a lot of Italians, and he doesn’t look Italian. I’m really lost with him.”
▪ 51, chief marketing officer
▪ Country of origin: United States
▪ Languages: English, a little French
▪ Succeeds: Jeff Hallock
▪ Salary: $800,000
Kevin Crull was raised in Ohio and has years of U.S. experience with AT&T. But it was his decade in Canada that will guide his work at Sprint.
As president of residential services at Bell Canada, Crull spent five years cutting costs and changing how the “legacy business” did business. The goal was more than to be cheaper. It was important also to be simpler.
“As we look at transforming Sprint, growth alone isn’t going to make this company sustainable,” Crull said. “There is a cost structure transformation and a lot of that … comes down to simplifying how we do business.”
At Bell Canada, now BCE, the intentional byproduct of that early work was cash to invest in expanding its Bell Media business where Crull was CEO during the last five years. Crull oversaw the launch of a service similar to AT&T’s U-verse and the acquisitions of Canada’s largest television broadcaster and its largest radio operator.
Steven Bickley, a Kansas City area native who worked for Crull at three different companies, says his old boss is driven to win.
It’s a trait from Crull’s college wrestling days at Ohio State, said Bickley, who left Canada to help launch the Museum of the Bible under construction in Washington, D.C.
“You could see that wrestler personality come out,” Bickley said. “If he had an idea to win he would share it, and if somebody else’s idea was better … he jumped on it. He would embrace it because he wanted to win.”
Crull said he’s not sure how the transformation at Sprint turns out. He likens the mix of executives, Claure’s entrepreneurial background and SoftBank’s resources to a chemistry experiment.
“The scary part is that it always takes longer than you think,” he said.
Crull’s Canadian career was cut short by an incident last spring. A Canadian regulator had ruled against Bell Media and, according to published reports, Crull told its CTV news to exclude footage of the federal official from its coverage. It broadcast the footage anyway, and Crull was the one let go.
“Part of my learning from that is to understand a bit of the limits of passion, competitiveness, aggressiveness and probably how you handle frustration in a business environment,” Crull said. “We all want to win. Winning is hard, and when you encounter those obstacles, how you deal with them is a really, really important part of being a strong executive.”
Aside: At work, Crull is systematic and analytical in his approach, said Roger Solé of his boss. “But socially, he’s totally the opposite. He’s very fun. He makes jokes. He’s very easy and very friendly over a beer outside work.”
▪ 46, chief operating officer, technology
▪ Country of origin: Austria
▪ Languages: German, English, a little Italian, Latin
▪ Succeeds: new post combines network, IT functions
▪ Salary: undisclosed
Back in the day, there were two kinds of techies in Vienna. Günther Ottendorfer was “an Atari guy,” as opposed to his Commodore 64 friends.
And he got inside the hardware, learning to program and launching his career and life immersed in the latest technology.
“He always had to have the newest stuff,” said Georg Polzl, who was Ottendorfer’s boss at Deutsche Telekom’s wireless operations in Austria and Germany.
Polzl now runs Austria Post, the nation’s postal service owned 53 percent by the government but operating independently. He recalls Ottendorfer’s early-adopter zeal when the iPhone first came out and developers began creating apps for the popular smartphone.
“I didn’t even understand what an app is and he already has five screens full with different apps,” Polzl said.
Ottendorfer regularly backs startup projects, more than 150 so far, and earned himself an engraved “Champion Backer” Pebble watch for being an early funder on Kickstarter.
In his wireless career, Ottendorfer has worked with many facets of Sprint’s wireless network, which he helps oversee as chief operating officer for technology.
At Austria’s No. 2 wireless carrier, Ottendorfer’s job was to merge its network with that of the No. 4 carrier it acquired. At T-Mobile Germany, he handled a modernization project that involved updates at 20,000 towers, which he likened to open-heart surgery.
Ottendorfer then worked for Optus Singtel, an Australian rival to Robbiati’s Telstra though the men did not meet in that market. Optus tapped Ottendorfer to help it launch faster mobile data services using LTE technology, which he’d handled at T-Mobile.
Optus used two kinds of LTE technology, both of which are incorporated in Sprint’s LTE network. Each company tapped a second and less widely used version called TD-LTE that Sprint’s parent company SoftBank Group Corp. has backed.
Optus and Sprint each turned to this version to make better use of the high-frequency wireless airwaves their networks use.
“It was quite an important thing” at Optus, Ottendorfer said. “We had similar questions in Australia that Sprint has now.”
And while Ottendorfer was at Optus, it bought a wireless carrier that used the WiMax technology that Sprint used on its older network that it is now shutting down.
Moving to the Kansas City area added one more item to Ottendorfer’s resume. Forbes Austria recently named him one the 50 most influential Austrian captains of industry abroad.
Aside: “Günther takes more selfies than anybody I’ve every worked with,” Kevin Crull said. “He’s insatiably curious about the places he travels, and I love to see his chronicle of that by taking selfies.”
▪ 41, senior vice president, marketing, innovation, Hispanic market
▪ Country of origin: Catalonia region of Spain
▪ Languages: Catalan, Spanish, English, Portuguese, some Italian
▪ Succeeds: newly created posts
▪ Salary: undisclosed
Roger Solé admits some people thought he was crazy for deciding to move to Kansas. He lived in Rio de Janeiro. Near the beach, where he ran in the morning. Luxury.
And his wife, Adriana, was expecting their first child.
But the native of Barcelona, Spain, felt he’d completed all he had to do as chief marketing officer of TIM Brazil, the second largest wireless carrier in that large South American country.
Moreover, he’d worked a bit with Claure, who had done business with TIM Brazil through his Miami-based Brightstar Corp. and was now pitching a job in the states with Sprint.
“Working with Marcelo (Claure) was something I’d consider (doing) anywhere,” Solé said. “And developing a turnaround in the U.S., it seemed very exciting.”
Solé’s telecom career began at a startup consulting company led by Ferran Soriano, who is now CEO of City Football Group with four teams including the Major League Soccer team New York City FC. The consulting company helped launch new wireless carriers, work that took young Solé to Portugal, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom where he learned about a new local market each time.
“He was very entrepreneurial,” Soriano said. “He’s obviously very smart and had a lot of life.”
After consulting for Vivo, Brazil’s largest wireless carrier, Solé joined its marketing team. Six years later he became chief marketing officer of its struggling rival, No. 2 TIM Brazil.
“We were very successful. When I entered the company we had 35 million customers, so we more than doubled the customer base,” Solé said of TIM Brazil.
Solé is expected to bring an innovative push to Sprint and to help the Kansas-based carrier build its base in the fast growing U.S. Hispanic market.
Solé hails directly from Spain, or to be more precise Catalonia, a region that includes Barcelona and seeks a referendum to separate from Spain. Solé would have a ballot, and an independent Catalonia would get his vote.
“All Catalans feel very proudly Catalan. Not because it’s better or worse but because it’s different. It has its own language. It has its own culture, its own tradition, its own history,” Solé said. “It’s always been a nation. But it hasn’t been a state, a political state.”
Aside: “Roger and I visited the Ikea (in Merriam) together,” Ottendorfer said of a shopping trip this summer. Ottendorfer bought the assembly service, but Solé did not. “I helped him build his furniture. That was a great bonding experience,” Ottendorfer said. “It can destroy marriages.”
An earlier version of this story misstated Solé’s wife’s name.