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By Nat Ives
John Legere's absence from T-Mobile US Inc. after he steps down as chief executive officer next year will be noticed, not least because he has made himself so noticeable.
Mr. Legere stands out from other CEOs. He sports long hair, leather jackets and T-shirts in T-Mobile magenta. He riddles rivals with public barbs on Twitter, including calling AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. "dumb and dumber." He hosts an exuberant cooking show shot as a vertically for Facebook called "Slow Cooker Sunday," which attracts millions of views.
He seeks attention, in short, and he gets it.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in 2014, he showed up to a party thrown by AT&T and got ejected. He said he just wanted to see rapper Macklemore perform.
"He was truly the face, and hair, of the brand," said Andrew Essex, chief executive of Plan A, a collection of marketing agencies.
Plenty of corporate bosses have entwined themselves with their companies' brands, from Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca to Victor Kiam, who bragged in TV commercials that he liked Remington products so much that he bought the company. Mr. Legere just put a modern, social-media stamp on the approach.
More CEOs are likely to follow his lead as social media and tuned-in consumers push them into the spotlight, said Daniel Binns, the New York chief executive of branding firm Interbrand. "The CEO can't be a hidden figure any more," Mr. Binns said.
Mr. Legere, 61, once presented himself as a fairly staid telecommunications and tech veteran, with prior tours at AT&T and running Global Crossing Ltd. He styled himself with slicked-back, combed hair and drab suits.
But at a 2013 event to promote a deal between T-Mobile and Major League Baseball, not long after T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom AG named him CEO of T-Mobile's U.S. operations, he uncorked on the way the wireless business treats its customers.
"It was an action statement for me," he told Business Insider. "I'm sure it sounded a bit arrogant, that I was going to fix this industry. From then on, I started to be the brand."
It was around then that he began to wear his hair longer and stopped wearing formal suits as often.
Under Mr. Legere, T-Mobile rose from an afterthought to the third-largest wireless provider by subscribers, behind Verizon and AT&T. He fought successfully to get federal approval for T-Mobile's proposed $26 billion-plus takeover of Sprint Corp. (a deal that has been delayed by an antitrust suit by several states).
And his unconventional approach has helped embody the company's "Un-carrier" positioning, which is meant to set it apart from the rest of the telecom industry.
"He had a very distinct impact on their culture and their external brand image," said Susan Cantor, CEO of Sterling Brands, a strategic branding and design firm. "He gave them a brash style, an irreverent tone, and I think most importantly he really imbued the organization with a challenger mind-set."
Not all of Mr. Legere's public moments have been positive. In 2016, he posted a video including an obscenity as he defended a T-Mobile product from questions by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit privacy advocacy group. "Why are you stirring up so much trouble?" he said in part. "And who pays you?"
He later apologized, saying that the group fights for consumers.
During Congressional hearings this year about the deal for Sprint, Democrats questioned Mr. Legere about T-Mobile executives' stays at the Trump International Hotel in D.C.
Some observers aren't sure how much Mr. Legere's performative qualities mattered to the company's growth. "His tweeting and trash-talking energized the troops, and eventually it became part of their brand promise to customers," said Craig Moffett, an analyst with MoffettNathanson Research LLC.
Whether that is what drove T-Mobile's success is hard to tell, Mr. Moffett said. "Behind the scenes, he was analytically driven and rather cerebral, although still irreverent, and they made a lot of good decisions."
The company's next CEO, operating chief Mike Sievert, deserves much of the credit for the company's strategy and execution in recent years, Mr. Moffett added.
But don't expect Mr. Sievert to grow his hair long when he takes over for Mr. Legere at T-Mobile.
"Mike's more the cardigan guy to John's leather," said Ric Prentiss, managing director at financial services firm Raymond James & Associates Inc., where he covers T-Mobile. "Will he continue the message of 'We're the Un-carrier?' Yes. Will he continue embracing the customers and employees? Is he excited about broadband and video? Yes. Is he going to host 'Slow Cooker Sunday?' Probably not."
--Drew Fitzgerald contributed to this article.
Write to Nat Ives at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 18, 2019 17:38 ET (22:38 GMT)
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