What Sprint CEO Dan Hesse Should Do Next

I don’t get why companies today take so long to make deals. Just do it already. The latest rumor is about Sprint Nextel, Comcast and Time Warner Cable acquiring Clearwire. Of course, we have heard of other Sprint rumors over the last few years that didn’t pan out — like acquiring T-Mobile. Dan Hesse, the CEO of Sprint, waited too long to pull the trigger on that one, leaving Sprint out in the cold. So will Sprint swing this deal or not?

Some say the decision whether to acquire Clearwire will wait till after the AT&T merger is complete. Why? Even if AT&T and T-Mobile don’t get together, this Sprint Clearwire deal still makes sense — doesn’t it?

Clearwire basically started life as a Sprint product. Then, to spread the risk, Hesse spun it off and got other investors like Comcast and Time Warner involved. This was smart, at the time, since Sprint was wounded. Clearwire’s path into existance was strange, and its marketing even stranger, but it grew — intially, anyway.

Now it seems like it is traveling in the slow lane as competitors like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile roll out their 4G plans. Today, Clearwire is sinking into second-rate status, fading into the woodwork without a big brand name behind it.

If this is Sprint’s 4G network anyway, then just acquire it already. What good will waiting do? Another carrier may jump in and acquire it before Sprint can. Deja vu?

Damn. Watching these timid moves drive me crazy. What ever happened to bold CEOs taking the helm and steering their companies through the churning waters across the finish line?

Guns Blazing

CEOs like Ed Whitacre of SBC. Remember him? He tried to acquire AT&T when it was still big and strong in the late 1990s. Reed Hundt, the FCC chairman at the time, called that deal “unthinkable,” and the offer was withdrawn.

Of course, he did end up acquiring AT&T a handful of years later, when the industry had changed and AT&T had shrunk to a mere skeleton of its former self. But he got the brand name.

Whitacre was a pistol. That’s the way CEOs used to behave — the way they should behave today. Taking bold steps and doing big deals, and transforming both their companies and the industry.

Remember how SBC started as the smallest Baby Bell? Remember how AT&T was dying on the vine? Remember how Whitacre pulled several companies together, seemingly over one hot summer a few years ago? Remember how SBC acquired AT&T, Bellsouth and Cingular — then changed the name of the entire new company to AT&T?

That was one of the biggest and gutsiest moves we have ever seen. They should teach that move in CEO class at college. We should be seeing more of these gutsy plays. Today however, everything seems too quiet and sedate and orderly.

Run, Don’t Walk

Enough! Its time to shake things up. It’s time for another Big Bang! Sprint should take advantage of these uncertain times and turn itself into a big-time player, and transform the industry as well. It could quickly grow from a small time player into a powerhouse. It is being done by other companies — just look at CenturyLink and Windstream for example.

SBC transformed itself from the last place weakling to first place powerhouse seemingly overnight. Look at AT&T now. It’s bigger and badder than ever, and growing rapidly.

Why can’t Sprint do the same thing now? Why does it even need Comcast or Time Warner? Why can’t it take the big and bold steps it needs to take to reinvent itself into a giant overnight? Don’t ask me. I don’t understand why it hasn’t already.

Sure, Sprint had a rough few years. It changed CEOs twice. It has been slowly recovering and rebuilding. Now that the AT&T deal has taken T-Mobile off the table, Sprint seems backed into a corner once again. Why, for crying out loud?

Wake up Sprint! Your only chance of coming out of this alive is to come out swinging. Stand up and take bold, decisive, company-reshaping moves — today. This is important for workers, customers and investors. This is not just a game.

As for Comcast and Time Warner — who knows? This Clearwire deal does not seem important to them right now. Does Sprint need them to strike this deal? They can always buy from Sprint if they want the service.

Dan Hesse should be thinking bigger and bolder that that. The world has changed in the last several years since Clearwire was formed. Sprint’s thinking needs to catch up.

The passion in this deal must come from Hesse. If he shows bold leadership, Sprint has a chance to be great. If. So let me pose this question: What would Ed Whitacre do? That’s the kind of fire we need to see more of today.

Jeff Kagan's Pick of the Week

Congratulations to my Pick of the Week, LightSquared, for bringing in a public relations guru to try and clear the cluttered path that is piling up during the last six months. If you read my column last week, you know that is exactly what I recommended it should do.

Terry Neal is the company’s new senior vice president of PR and communications, reporting to Chief Marketing Officer Frank Boulben. The question is, can Terry turn the public relations ship around? It has been heading in the wrong direction fast.

LightSquared has spent the last six months trying to put out countless fires ignited by the GPS industry. It has not been focusing on building the company’s name and image in the marketplace. It has not been ingratiating itself with carriers, customers and investors.

In fact, if you were to ask people on the street, they either would have no idea what LightSquared is, or they would say it is hurting the GPS industry. There would be nothing about the solution it presents to our wireless broadband problem. This is a disaster. Now the company has to spend enormous time and energy just trying to dig its way back up to zero. Only then can it start to build.

The first thing to do is to plug the hole, then try to rebuild. Provide new story ideas to the media so they can write about truthful things that will also be helpful to LightSquared. Inform the marketplace on the growing industry problem that LightSquared will solve.

There have been countless stories written about the black eye AT&T Mobility has suffered over wireless data problems. LightSquared could help erase it. However, most are not aware of this.

LightSquared could also help smaller wireless carriers offer the same wireless data services as Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile. That is the story that should be told. Along with defending its position on the GPS issue.

So good luck, Terry. I have worked with many firms over the years and seen many hit a home run and others wither. You have a mountain of a job ahead of you. The future of the company is riding on your shoulders.

Hopefully, Terry Neal can solve the LightSquared GPS problem and solve the growing PR problem that has been developing over the last six months.

Jeff Kagan

E-Commerce Times columnist Jeff Kagan is a tech analyst and consultant who enjoys sharing his colorful perspectives on the changing industry he's been watching for 25 years. Email him at [email protected].

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