‘He’s a Pit Bull’: T-Mobile CEO Is the Colorful Outlier of Wireless
Posted May 1, 2018 3:37 p.m. EDT
Updated May 1, 2018 3:42 p.m. EDT
At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, T-Mobile’s chief executive John Legere crashed the AT&T party at the Venetian hotel. Wearing a black leather jacket and his customary pink T-Mobile T-shirt, Legere said he was just hoping to see rapper Macklemore perform.
It didn’t work. Legere was soon noticed and escorted out by security — and, he told the tech site Recode, threatened with charges if he didn’t leave the premises. But before he left, Legere managed to pause long enough to speak with a reporter and trash AT&T.
Since taking over T-Mobile in 2012, Legere has made a name for himself with those kinds of publicity stunts — promoting his own brand while undermining the competition.
But now, Legere may have truly crashed the party.
On Sunday, T-Mobile agreed to acquire its longtime rival Sprint for $26.5 billion. If the deal is completed, T-Mobile will be about the same size as AT&T. Only Verizon would be bigger.
Under the terms of the proposed deal, Legere would become chief executive of the combined company, which would keep the T-Mobile name.
It’s a bold move and one that illustrates Legere’s willingness to disrupt the status quo, even if he appears to have the weaker hand.
“He wants to take on the titans of AT&T and Verizon,” said Steve Grasso, director of institutional sales at Stuart Frankel and a market analyst for CNBC, who knows Legere socially. “He’s a pit bull.”
The combination of T-Mobile and Sprint has been years in the making, as both companies have sought to add scale and compete with their larger rivals. Yet the last time the companies formally attempted a deal, in 2014, it was Sprint that was planning to acquire T-Mobile.
That deal fell apart in the face of regulatory scrutiny. And since then, Legere has managed to build T-Mobile’s business by flouting convention. Under his leadership, T-Mobile began offering unlimited data, reduced prices and less stringent contract commitments.
When Legere took over in 2012, he was a very different executive and T-Mobile was a very different company.
T-Mobile was reeling from a failed attempt to sell itself to AT&T and struggling to distinguish itself from other low-cost carriers like Sprint and Metro PCS. Legere, who spent 20 years working at AT&T, was a conventional, if ambitious, telecommunications executive.
“He was a finance guy,” said Dan Hesse, former chief executive of Sprint, who was a mentor of Legere’s at AT&T. “The first time I saw John after he was named CEO of T-Mobile, he was there in his suit.”
That soon changed. In 2013, Legere was onstage at an event in Las Vegas with Joe Torre, former manager of the New York Yankees, promoting a partnership between T-Mobile and Major League Baseball.
When reporters asked him about the state of the wireless industry, he responded with a tirade about how badly customers were mistreated and what he planned to do differently.
“It hit a chord,” he told Business Insider. “It was an action statement for me — I’m sure it sounded a bit arrogant — that I was going to fix this industry. From then on, I started to be the brand.”
Soon, Legere, now 59, had a whole new look. He grew his hair to his shoulders. He wore company T-shirts wherever he went. He pulled on custom pink Converse sneakers emblazoned with the T-Mobile logo. Before long, the finance guy looked more like an aging rock star.
At the same time, Legere embraced social media as a tool to promote himself and needle his adversaries. On Facebook, he started a cooking show, “Slow Cooker Sunday.” On YouTube, he called AT&T and Verizon “dumb and dumber.”
And on Twitter, he began hurling insults at competitors and tangling with rival CEOs — including Sprint’s Marcelo Claure. Twitter users ate it up and Legere now has more than 5.6 million followers. Twitter even designed him a custom emoji.
Offline, Legere also cultivated an eccentric image. He is a regular visitor to T-Mobile stores and call centers, where he delivers boisterous pep talks. At company meetings, he offers employees $100 if they will ask him a question in the form of a song. And in the office, he is fond of riding around on a Segway.
“John has built a franchise around T-Mobile, which is in part his own,” said Stephen Scherr, head of the consumer and commercial banking division at Goldman Sachs, who has worked with Legere for more than a decade.
But Legere has paired showmanship with results. During his tenure, T-Mobile has added subscribers and increased revenues and profits. “He’s also a great operator,” Scherr said. “He runs a really good business.”
If Legere succeeds in finally joining T-Mobile and Sprint, the man who wanted to come off as the consummate outsider will have pulled off the ultimate insider move: a megamerger to combine two rival companies and seize a greater share of a changing industry. Regulators are certain to take a close look at the proposed combination and there is a chance they could block the deal. However, there is reason to believe that they could view the union more favorably than they did four years ago.
Under President Donald Trump, antitrust enforcement has become unpredictable. The Justice Department has mounted a court fight against the proposed combination of AT&T and Time Warner, which do not directly compete with one another. At the same time, there appears to be little resistance to the proposed acquisition of 21st Century Fox assets by Disney, a deal which would reduce competition in the film and television industry.
Legere, who is sensitive to public perceptions, seems to have anticipated this moment. In January 2017, after Trump’s election but before his inauguration, Legere was asked about his view of the regulatory environment under the Trump administration.
“It’s hard not to be excited,” he said, about regulatory views that would be “conducive to us significantly expanding our business.”
Legere added that he was hoping to meet Trump and offered roundabout praise for the president’s famously antagonistic approach to social media, saying that Trump had replaced him as one of the “kings of mean on Twitter.”
Legere knew from had firsthand experience. In 2015, after Trump insulted UFC fighter Ronda Rousey on Twitter, Legere came to her defense. In the ensuing exchange, Legere said Trump wasn’t presidential material.
“I am an undecided Republican,” Legere wrote. “Well not totally undecided, I know what I don’t want :)”
But it seems that the prospect of a multibillion-dollar deal can heal old wounds.
Legere has since deleted that tweet about the president. And on Sunday, Legere was making the rounds with Claure of Sprint, another old social media sparring partner, to talk up their alliance.