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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.
I'm ready for my close up. At its annual Unpacked event, Samsung unveiled three flagship smartphones in its new Galaxy S20 line, all with 5G connectivity and 120Hz displays. When I got an advance peek last week, I was particularly impressed with the Ultra model's 10X optical zoom that goes to 100X with software, though it costs $1,400. There was also a new folding phone, the Z Flip, and of course, more earbuds.
It's your kids, Marty. We can't revisit the past but maybe we can undo it via some kind of antitrust voodoo? That seems to be the point of recent demands from the Federal Trade Commission to Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon seeking information about all of their acquisitions made between 2010 and 2019.
From the department of too good to be true. Looks like the game-streaming wars are going to go a lot like the TV streaming wars, and that's not good. Activision Blizzard has decided to pull popular games like Call of Duty and Overwatch off of Nvidia's new GeForce Now online gaming service.
All the money in the world. San Francisco-based e-commerce site Brandless is closing despite significant backing from SoftBank Group. A $240 million investment in 2018 failed to get Brandless going, now making it the first SoftBank-backed startup to go under.
Can't please all of the people. Ride-hailing service Lyft reported fourth quarter earnings beating analyst expectations, but without making any promises about reaching profitability. Its stock price, already up 25% this year, lost 5% in pre-market trading on Wednesday.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Be careful where you buy your security gear. That seems to be the bottom line of a fascinating Washington Post story by reporter Greg Miller titled "The intelligence coup of the century." Turns out one of the leading sellers of encryption devices, a little company called Crypto AG, was actually owned by...the CIA. And the spooks at Langley had fixed all of the gear so that they could read any message. Oops. It didn't fool everyone, however.
The program had limits. America’s main adversaries, including the Soviet Union and China, were never Crypto customers. Their well-founded suspicions of the company’s ties to the West shielded them from exposure, although the CIA history suggests that U.S. spies learned a great deal by monitoring other countries’ interactions with Moscow and Beijing.
There were also security breaches that put Crypto under clouds of suspicion. Documents released in the 1970s showed extensive — and incriminating — correspondence between an NSA pioneer and Crypto’s founder. Foreign targets were tipped off by the careless statements of public officials including President Ronald Reagan. And the 1992 arrest of a Crypto salesman in Iran, who did not realize he was selling rigged equipment, triggered a devastating “storm of publicity,” according to the CIA history.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
My boss wants me to travel during the coronavirus. Do I have to go? By Jeff John Roberts
How DoorDash took the lead in food delivery By Alan Murray
Amazon is No. 1 in ‘brand intimacy,’ beating some big rivals By Don Reisinger
White House proposes big increase in A.I. and quantum spending while cutting other sciences By Jonathan Vanian
Can Amazon convince a federal court to depose Trump over a $10 billion Pentagon contract? By Morgan Enos
Robot surgery could be the future of health care in remote areas By Ryan Madder
Energy emissions plateaued in 2019, as advanced economies gave up coal By Katherine Dunn
BEFORE YOU GO
Before photography took off, book and magazines were filled with detailed illustrations and artists' renderings. The Open Culture blog notes that thousands of these beautiful pieces of art from the 1880s through the 1920s are now online at the site Artcyclopedia, cataloged by artist, date, and other metadata. If you're in the mood to be dazzled, take a look.