It’s one thing to take over from a successful CEO. It’s quite another to follow in the footsteps of a larger-than-life, brash-talking, Twitter-fueled leader like T-Mobile’s John Legere, who also happened to transform the company into the No. 2 carrier and the dominant player in 5G, and quintupled the stock price over his eight-year tenure. But by his side the whole time was Mike Sievert, who as of April won the top job upon Legere’s retirement. While Sievert brings a decidedly suburban Seattle dad vibe to the party, he also possesses top-notch marketing chops honed at some of America’s leading brands.
To be sure, history shows that following a star exec is no easy task. Tim Cook has successfully extended Steve Jobs’ trailblazing path at Apple, but whether it’s Craig Barrett taking over at Intel for Andy Grove or Jeff Immelt following Jack Welch at GE, the Fortune 500 is littered with succession stories that do not go as planned.
And though Legere’s glorious run included adding more new customers than all his competitors combined to triple T-Mobile’s subscriber base, analysts say there’s still more opportunity for Sievert, especially as consumers are only starting to seek the benefits of 5G networks where T-Mobile is well positioned to lead. “Worst-to-first stories are rare enough in American business, but in telecom they’re almost unheard of,” longtime industry analyst Craig Moffett at MoffettNathanson Research gushes. With lower prices than AT&T and Verizon plus a potentially better network, “that’s a powerful recipe for continued share gains,” he adds.
The reason T-Mobile is considered the leader in 5G comes down to airwave spectrum, the precious but limited commodity of the wireless industry. Thanks to the Sprint deal, T-Mobile has vast swaths of underused spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band, which is well-suited for sending speedy 5G traffic to subscribers on the go or in homes and businesses. Verizon and AT&T don’t have anything like it available and have been bidding like mad at the most recent federal airwave auction to try to catch up. But those new airwaves won’t be online for a year or more.
The challenge is convincing sticky cell phone customers at AT&T and Verizon that T-Mobile’s 5G is enough of a game changer to switch allegiance. All three carriers have muddied the waters with forgettable ads so far that in some cases had to be pulled after the ad industry’s watchdog pegged them for exaggerations. T-Mobile’s recent ad starring Bill Nye, the Science Guy, got dinged for promising the “most reliable” 5G network, while Verizon had to pull a Super Bowl ad claiming its 5G network was built for first responders and drop its claim it had the “most powerful” 5G.
Still, Sievert may be ideally suited to design the message that wins the 5G era as firmly as Verizon’s “Can you hear me now?” campaign helped it dominate the 3G and 4G periods. “We’re going to create some real FOMO among people carrying around AT&T and Verizon phones,” Sievert wagers.
He first learned the business sitting at the kitchen table listening to his dad, a marketing guru for IBM and other companies, craft campaigns. After graduating from the Wharton School in 1991, he joined Procter & Gamble, where he oversaw brands including Crest and Pepto-Bismol. The stomach-calming Pepto team sat with the Metamucil team, leading to some hilarious co-marketing opportunities, at least inside P&G’s walls. A T-shirt with both product logos read, “With friends like these, who needs enemas?” “P&G didn’t have quite the same swag game as T-Mobile,” Sievert jokes now.
From P&G, Sievert won increasing responsibilities across corporate America, joining IBM’s personal computing unit for a few years before the lure of the dotcom bubble drew him to E*Trade in 1998, where, at not yet 30 years old, he was named chief marketing officer and helped develop the broker’s memorable Super Bowl ads. Then came lead marketing roles at AT&T Wireless in 2002 and at Microsoft. From there, missing a “hypercompetitive market like wireless,” he found his way to Sprint’s Clearwire unit, and ultimately, in 2012, to T-Mobile.
Sievert helped develop Legere’s “Uncarrier” strategy that did away with two-year contracts, overage charges, and other annoyances. Loyal customers were rewarded with free pizza promotions and “Netflix on us.” T-Mobile, in fourth place in 2012, passed Sprint in 2015 and is now ahead of AT&T by some measures and aiming to pass Verizon.
“The opportunity we have in front of us is like nothing we’ve ever had,” he says. T-Mobile’s fast 5G already covers where more than 100 million people live and will double that by year-end. AT&T and Verizon cover a tiny fraction of that with their fastest 5G. Also in Sievert’s sights is completing Legere’s effort to take on the cable market. “It’s a $100 billion industry dominated by companies customers don’t love,” Sievert says.
Sounds like a great call.
This article appears in the February/March 2021 issue of Fortune.