John Legere will go down in corporate history as one of the greatest turnaround stories of all time

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A few months after John Legere got the top job at T-Mobile in 2012, Verizon ran a commercial belittling rivals by name for their lesser network coverage. Some people around Legere were furious, but the boss was pleased. “We made the list, they talked about us,” he recalled to me years later. “They are gonna regret the day that they put us on that list.”

T-Mobile went on to lead the industry in customer growth year after year, outgaining Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint combined. The fourth quarter of 2019 marked the 27th quarter in a row that T-Mobile gained at least 1 million new customers—it added 1.9 million. A good T-Mobile quarter is better than a rival’s entire year. As a result, T-Mobile’s stock price has increased six-fold since the company effectively went public in 2013. (Verizon’s stock price is up just 9% since then and AT&T’s 2%.)

Legere’s is a journey that will go down in the annals of corporate history as one of the greatest turnaround stories of all time, rivaling Lou Gerstner at IBM or Steve Jobs at Apple.

He took over a fading, fourth-place also-ran that was struggling to remain relevant and built a titan that drove the wireless industry. If Legere’s deal to take Sprint off Masayoshi Son’s hands finally closes in a few weeks, as now seems likely, the combined company will rank second in the industry by some measures and likely be worth more than $100 billion on the stock market.

Not a lot of people outside of T-Mobile were buying into Legere’s vision when he stormed CES in 2013 and declared that T-Mobile would become the “uncarrier” and do away with two-year contracts. Along the way, T-Mobile dumped all sorts of wireless plan “features” hated by customers, including roaming fees, data overage fees, and international usage fees. And don’t forget the numerous clever marketing campaigns, such as the time they gave away free pizzas

Executives at competing carriers used to rail against the F-bomb-dropping, Twitter war-engaging, magenta tee shirt-wearing Legere and claim his early success was unsustainable, uneconomic, and downright fake. No one’s saying that anymore. When activist hedge fund Elliott Management released a lengthy letter attacking AT&T’s strategy last year, it cited Legere’s company as the model for success: “T-Mobile was the disruptive innovator.” 

Certainly, just like Jobs and Gerstner, Legere benefited from some forces beyond his control, like the smartphone revolution that created massive growth for the entire wireless industry. And he had a powerful team, starting with president and CEO-in-waiting Mike Sievert and including networking genius Neville Ray, financing wiz Braxton Carter, and customer care guru Callie Field. I chronicled their approach in a feature story two years ago.

Now Legere is at the other side of his journey running T-Mobile. After eight years as CEO, the lifelong tech and telecom exec is stepping down at the end of April, handing the reins to trusted lieutenant Sievert. Legere hasn’t said much about what he’ll do next, though we know he won’t be running the bananas real-estate startup WeWork, despite rumors (that job went to an actual real estate exec).

As Legere sits in his 10th-floor corner office in Bellevue, Washington, perhaps packing up his T-Mobile-branded Segway and T-Mobile-branded sneakers that he gives to visitors, he’s no doubt smiling and thinking of his next challenge. It should be a pretty good story.

Aaron Pressman

Twitter: @ampressman



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