Home Technology John Legere brought T-Mobile back from the dead. Now he's moving on

John Legere brought T-Mobile back from the dead. Now he’s moving on

At T-Mobile’s Un-carrier event earlier this month, CEO John Legere, known as much for his foul mouth as his obsession with magenta-accented fashion, held off on dropping his first and only obscenity until after the halfway point of the two-hour event. And it wasn’t even a shot at his two favorite targets, larger rivals AT&T and Verizon. It was a reference to how much data capacity the company would get once it seals its $26.5 billion acquisition of Sprint.

For the record, according to Legere, it’s “a shit load.”

“That’s not even shit by itself,” Legere (pronounced “ledger”) said, when asked later about his verbal restraint. He slyly grins. “I’m professional.”

Contrast that with his first press conference at 2013’s CES, where he left the audience slack-jawed and in stitches with his multiple — and creative — uses of words that would make any other telecom executive blush. He called AT&T’s network “crap” — and that was one of his tamer insults. Six years of F-bombs, attitude and snark followed.

But the firebrand’s era is nearing an end. On Monday, T-Mobile said Legere would hand over the reins to his more straitlaced protege, Chief Operating Office and President Mike Sievert, on May 1.

In hindsight, the last Un-carrier event, in which T-Mobile unveiled a number of programs “for good,” including a $15 plan and free service for first responders for a decade — all dependent on T-Mobile closing its $26.5 billion acquisition of Sprint — served as portent to this announcement. I had a chance to spend time with Legere at the event, and while he never indicated then that he was on his way out, his comments about the team and legacy he built pointed to someone who was ready to ride off into the sunset.

“The era of the eccentric executive is over,” Legere said during our chat earlier this month.

The company declined to make Legere available for a follow-up interview on Monday, but he said in a statement that he believes Sievert is “absolutely the right choice as T-Mobile’s next CEO.”

Legere, who will stay on as director, is set to move on at a critical time for T-Mobile and the wireless industry. The Sprint acquisition is tied up by several state attorneys general suing to block the deal, but it could reshape the industry by giving T-Mobile the assets and customer base to create a bigger player on par with Verizon and AT&T.

T-Mobile President Mike Sievert (left) and CEO John Legere (right) discuss the future of the wireless carrier. 


Sarah Tew/CNET

This is also happening as T-Mobile is readying the wide deployment of its 5G network, which launches on Dec. 6, as well as next year’s launch of an over-the-top video service.

There’s a lot on Sievert’s plate.

But industry observers note that Legere has built up one of the strongest management teams in the wireless industry, contributing to a machine that’s led all players in subscriber additions over the last several years, at times outstripping the rest of the field in growth.

“It’s probably the best-executing company in the industry,” said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, who would’ve ranked T-Mobile dead last before Legere took over.

Sievert, however, likely isn’t going to make headlines for the latest stunt that he’s pulled on a competitor.

That infamous AT&T party

I accidentally had a hand in one of the earliest and flashiest of Legere’s antics — having been the reason he got kicked out of an AT&T party at CES in 2014. To this day, some believe it was some sort of coordinated stunt that we pulled off. For the record, I arrived at the party late, and our meeting outside of the venue was purely by chance.

Given the novelty of the T-Mobile chief attending an AT&T party to watch Macklemore perform, I took a photo with him at the party. A little bit later, bouncers surrounded him and after a short chat in the back area of the club, Legere was sent packing, setting off one of the biggest stories at that year’s conference.

“When Legere got kicked out of that AT&T event, it was a seminal moment in the aggressive way he would approach his competition in the years to come,” said Walt Piecyk, an analyst at investment research firm LightShed Partners.

Legere stood out from the usual CEO. Early on, he used the Periscope video service during runs through Central Park to field random questions. His “Slow-cooker Sunday” segments morphed from a random oddity to a legitimate hit — he’s even got a cookbook. He’s paid surprise visits to T-Mobile stores and customer service centers, instilling an energy into a workforce that it hadn’t had in a long time.

“I’m amazed at the impact he’s had on energizing the employee base,” Piecyk said.

rogercrash.jpg

CNET’s Roger Cheng with T-Mobile CEO John Legere at AT&T’s CES party in January 2014.


CNET

It’s easy to forget now, but when Legere took over in 2012, the company was essentially left for dead. A year earlier, regulators blocked AT&T’s attempt to take over T-Mobile, which was in distant fourth place. Legere, who earlier worked at AT&T and Global Crossing, was brought in to turn the business around, but expectations were muted.

“There’s DT [Deutsche Telekom] looking at us, declaring that we’re going to transform the industry, having absolutely no belief at all that we had a snowball’s chance in hell of doing it,” Legere said in our interview. 

The F-bomb-laden declarations, however, would ring hollow had he not followed up with actual change. From T-Mobile dismantling carrier contracts to killing phone subsidies, Legere was equally effective in figuring out and addressing the biggest annoyances of the industry. The moves often forced his competitors to follow suit.

The actions were also carefully calculated and designed to hurt the competition. For example, T-Mobile offered free international data, knowing it was a lucrative source of revenue for Verizon and AT&T.

T-Mobile’s latest program comes right out of that playbook. The carrier is offering 10 years of free service to first responders, a market in which it doesn’t have a large existing business. But competitor AT&T is investing billions of dollars to build a dedicated network for first responders called FirstNet.

In response, AT&T called T-Mobile’s pledge to offer service to first responders and low-income households a “marketing stunt.”

Even when touting programs “for good,” Legere can’t help but thumb his nose at his rivals.

The real John Legere?

It’s hard to miss the 61-year-old Legere. In addition to his trademark long, unkempt hair, magenta T-Mobile shirt and custom leather jacket, he was rocking pink Christian Louboutin shoes and socks with his own face printed on them (no, really) when I met up with him.

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Legere discusses his executive team and his legacy at T-Mobile. 


Sarah Tew/CNET

The look, which hasn’t changed dramatically from his first press conference back in 2013, is such a stark contrast from his slick-backed hair and suit from his Global Crossing and AT&T days that many questioned if this was all an act.

And after more than six years of covering T-Mobile and Legere, I still really don’t have a good answer. He is, ironically, intensely private.

Legere’s love of geek culture at times appears genuine. Moments after fielding questions about the merger with Sprint and discussing succession issues, he excitedly shows me the listing for a piece of World of Warcraft memorabilia that he spent $24,000 on at the Blizzcon charity auction.

“It’s a charity, so I try to help them bid up the items,” Legere said. “But then I forget and get carried away.”

It’s that savvy that’s allowed him to appear genuine when connecting to fans on Twitter or Instagram. He’s built up a base of customers who aren’t just willing to stick with T-Mobile, but are fiercely loyal to the carrier, not unlike an Apple or Android fanboy.

His comfort on social media has been a critical ingredient of his success, alongside his quick wit. Before and after the Un-carrier webcast, he walks around with a “Quiet Please” sign and goofs around with the staff. 

But you get the impression that all of this chaos is masterfully orchestrated. And that the brash, foul-mouthed CEO is merely an exaggerated version of the real him.

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Legere suggested walking down Times Square with this sign to get a reaction out of people. 


Sarah Tew/CNET

For instance, he’s toned things down over the past year and a half as he’s waited for approval of the Sprint deal. He attributes his cleaner verbiage to his time in Washington DC appearing before Congress and the Federal Communications Commission.

He adds, however, that Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray, who on Monday was promoted to president of technology, has taken the swearing mantle.

“I’m so proud of him,” he said.

Life after Legere

When Legere talked about his biggest accomplishment, it isn’t the Un-carrier events or how he’s changed the industry (or annoyed AT&T and Verizon). Instead, he talked about the “killer deep bench” and the culture he’s created at T-Mobile.  

And he credited Sievert, who joined T-Mobile shortly after Legere, for helping to form this team. Sievert previously served stints at AT&T, Microsoft and Clearwire before landing at the Un-carrier.

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Legere and Mike Sievert holding court with their deep bench of executives. 


Sarah Tew/CNET

“We’ve been together for a long time,” Sievert said in the same interview. “You’ve got just great depth of experience on this senior team across the board.”

Sievert doesn’t have the bombastic personality of Legere. But T-Mobile employees say that he brings his own “moments of brilliance” to the job.

“John is the passion around the Un-carrier, while Mike is the sharp strategist,” said Peter DeLuca, senior vice president of brand and advertising.

There are instances when Sievert’s more conservative nature may be beneficial. On the last video earnings conference call, Legere bashed Verizon’s offer of one year of Disney Plus service, noting that, “nine out of 10 people that watch Disney cartoons don’t make wireless decisions.”

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Legere never misses an opportunity to take a snarky shot — even if it’s at his own lieutenant. 


Sarah Tew/CNET

Sievert, who is responsible for a video service that will launch next year, followed: “We think Disney Plus is going to be a great service. This isn’t a statement about Disney.”

While a lot of noise is made about the Un-carrier identity and how it’s intrinsically linked to Legere, Sievert has said he would carry on the company’s legacy of upending industry conventions. 

“There is no question the publicity Legere has been able to draw has helped T-Mobile be noticed by consumers, but business is not made on how much a CEO can swear or call his competitors names,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies.

T-Mobile has a little more than five months with Legere at the helm before the hand-off happens. 

“There’s still time for Mike to become cool,” Legere said. 





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