Visitors to T-Mobile’s Bellevue headquarters in Washington eight years ago were greeted by dull grey walls and what one described as a “strange German atmosphere”.
America’s fourth-largest mobile phone company, a struggling outpost of Deutsche Telekom, was facing a bleak future after its sale to AT&T was blocked.
The same visitor returned a few weeks later to find the company visibly transformed. Staff were wearing brightly coloured T-shirts — and people were smiling. “It felt like a different company,” he said.
That was the John Legere effect — and the makeover was not just of the company. T-Mobile first approached him in a week when he sealed his divorce and closed the sale of Global Crossing, the network company he had led for a decade. The US industry veteran, who had looked like any other suited and booted leader at Global, Dell and AT&T, grew his hair long and donned a leather jacket, magenta-coloured T-Mobile T-shirt and sneakers, and started throwing rocks at his larger rivals.
“He gave the number-four player a face and convinced them they were the winners when really they were the losers,” said one former colleague.
Last week Mr Legere was linked to the vacant chief executive position at WeWork. The switch to a smaller office space company at the centre of a corporate storm was met with disbelief in the telecoms sector. Mr Legere is closing in on T-Mobile’s long-running blockbuster takeover of rival Sprint. His consumer champion persona did not seem particularly suited to a business-to-business office provider. Mr Legere declined to comment.
That customer focus has been key to the turnround of T-Mobile, according to his peers. One who has worked with him closely said Mr Legere would become bored in meetings that required drilling down deep into financial statements or discussing corporate best practice. His real skill was getting the “front line” — thousands of sales and customer service workers — excited and happy while building a loyal team of strong executives such as Mike Sievert and Neville Ray to develop operational strategy and network expansion.
Mr Legere, 61, has cultivated what he calls a “bad boy” image since he launched his drive to whip T-Mobile USA into a genuine challenger. His foul-mouthed outbursts and abrasive attacks on larger rivals, which he labelled “dumb and dumber”, have done as much to shake up the “stupid, broken and arrogant” US telecoms industry as T-Mobile’s “Uncarrier” strategy to win customers by ditching rigid mobile contracts.
He has built up a cult of personality around himself. Mr Legere has his own emoji and broadcasts a weekly cookery show on Facebook. At company events he uses a John Legere doll, which also has its own Twitter account.
European telecoms bosses, such as BT Consumer chief executive Marc Allera, have adopted some of the social media savvy of his approach but most argue that the brash persona, especially the fierce attacks on rivals, would not play well outside America.
The Legere theatrics might have backfired had T-Mobile’s customer base not expanded from 33m to 84m during his tenure, growth matched by its financial progress. But he has succeeded in turning T-Mobile, a well-worn name linked to Europe’s largest incumbent telecoms company, into a genuine challenger brand.
The proposed takeover of Sprint, the struggling SoftBank-owned mobile network that once had designs on T-Mobile, is the coup de grâce for Mr Legere as his company heads into the 5G era.
Marcelo Claure, the Bolivian former Sprint chief, once called Mr Legere a “con artist” but they bonded strongly during merger talks. That is no surprise to Mr Legere’s colleagues who argue he is socially intelligent and works hard to forge relationships with unlikely allies such as Tim Höttges, Deutsche Telekom’s stern chief executive.
Mr Claure is now executive chairman of WeWork. SoftBank has doubled down on its investment in the office company following its failed initial public offering, and the Bolivian could try to tempt the magenta man away from telecoms and to another turnround story.
When he took on the top job at T-Mobile, Mr Legere quipped about a lesson he had learnt at karaoke bars during stints in Asia: always take the stage after the worst singer. WeWork’s turmoil may well tempt the showman chief executive to step up to the microphone again.