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SoftBank launches ‘guided missile’ to fix WeWork

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Via Financial Times

When Marcelo Claure addressed WeWork’s staff in New York this week, he called his own emergence from Bolivia “one of those stories of something that’s not supposed to happen”.

Thought to be the Latin American country’s richest man, Mr Claure is also the only Bolivian who has the ear of Japanese billionaire and SoftBank chief executive Masayoshi Son.

Five years ago, he took over the troubled US telecoms group Sprint at the behest of Mr Son. Now he has been installed as executive chairman at WeWork, the shared office company into which SoftBank poured billions of dollars, but which it was this week ignominously forced to rescue from a looming bankruptcy.

By putting Mr Claure in charge, Mr Son has deployed a man described by associates as a ferociously energetic entrepreneur with a punishing work ethic and eye for detail. “It’s kind of like launching a guided missile towards a problem,” says Michael Ronen, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers. 

The stakes could hardly be higher for SoftBank, where Mr Claure is chief operating officer. This week’s $9.5bn rescue is no guarantee that WeWork, whose founder Adam Neumann has now been sidelined, has a future. The rescue has brought SoftBank’s total commitment to WeWork to $18.5bn, Mr Claure told its staff this week. 

At 6ft 6in, heis hard to miss. A father of six, Mr Claure owns one football team and is developing another; he posts prolifically on Instagram and counts celebrities Jennifer Lopez and David Beckham as friends. The former England football captain says he is “lucky to have him as a friend and partner”.

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Rod Millar, chief executive of Brightstar, the mobile phone reseller that Mr Claure founded, says: “He’s probably the most charismatic person that I know.”

Born in 1970 in Guatemala, the son of a travelling geologist, Mr Claure studied at Bentley University in Massachussetts. At the same time he set up an eclectic set of small businesses, including selling canned food and buying frequent flyer miles from fellow students. 

After university he landed a job at the Bolivian Football Federation thanks to a chance encounter on aflight with its president, and helped to take the South American nation to the World Cup for the first time since the 1950s. Another fortuituous meeting — this time with the disillusioned owner of a Massachussetts mobile phone store — saw him buy the store on credit and develop it into a chain. 

It was in the unglamorous field of mobile phone distribution that the Bolivian madehis fortune. He founded Brightstar in 1997, then sold a majority stake to SoftBank for $1.26bn 16 years later. Mr Ronen recalls him as “a very aggressive, hard-charging entrepreneur [but] incredibly organised”. 

Rafael de Guzman, who worked as his chief of staff at Brightstar, recalls how Mr Claure first met Mr Son in Tokyo in 2012 and sought to convince him of the benefits of buying back and then reselling customers’ old phones. 

“Immediately Mr Son identified the competitive edge it would provide [in Japan]. A brief introductory meeting turned into a day-long session and a signed agreement.” But there was a catch: the programme, which would normally take months to establish, needed to launch in 10 days ahead of a new iPhone model. Mr Claure made it happen. 

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He was brought into Sprint, where SoftBank took control in 2013 for $21.6bn, after the mobile operator’s attempt to merge with rival T-Mobile failed. Mr Claure slashed 4,000 jobs, replaced executives and cut prices. He and Mr Son bought neighbouring mansions near Kansas City, where WeWork was brought in to revamp Sprint’s headquarters. 

In 2018 Sprint reported its first full-year profit in 11 years, and the merger with T-Mobile was revived, with the combination winning regulatory approval this month. Having relinquished the chief executive’s role at Sprint last year, Mr Claure become chief operating officer at SoftBank and was given the unenviable challenge of making sure the group’s sprawling set of investments hit their financial targets. 

A spell in Tokyo also exposed him to the power struggles at the top of SoftBank, where potential successors to Mr Son are jostling for position. He has now returned to Miami, his long-term home and the city where he and Mr Beckham are setting up a Major League Soccer team. 

“[Mr Claure] has put himself right in the middle of some of the more challenging corporate situations . . . He’s someone who is well-known, trusted and in whom [SoftBank] rightfully have confidence,” says Stephen Scherr, chief financial officer at Goldman Sachs. 

But reviving the fortunes of WeWork is not Mr Claure’s only task. He remains executive chairman of Sprint, leads a new Latin American tech fund for SoftBank,and still chairs Brightstar and Fortress Investment Group. Luckily, he is known for his stamina; one associate says he has repeatedly sat in meetings with Mr Claure at 3am.

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As at Sprint, Mr Claure will lay off thousands of staff. He will also have to oversee WeWork’s humiliating retreat from China, India and much of Latin America. He will use a familiar SoftBank ploy by ensuring the group’s companies send business WeWork’s way. The New York-based group will renovate all of SoftBank’s properties, he told staff this week. 

But with a company whose losses ballooned as fast as its revenues, and a workforce fearful for their jobs and fuming at the colossal payoff granted to Mr Neumann, many in the property industry are sceptical that WeWork has a future. 

Mr Claure is aware that most believe the odds are stacked against him. He reportedly told WeWork staff this week that “99 per cent of advice that we got is to cut your losses and run away”.

Instead, he is digging in. “We’re betting our [SoftBank’s] reputation and we’re betting everything we have.”

Additional reporting by Laura Noonan and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson

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