After the market close today, wireless broadband provider Clearwire announced a new CEO. Bill Morrow is taking over the role from Ben Wolff, a co-CEO or CEO of the company since 2004. A long-time sidekick of Chairman Craig McCaw, Wolff will stay on as co-chairman.
As unexpected as Morrow’s appointment is, Clearwire has, apparently, been searching for a new CEO for two months, says director John Stanton. It used headhunters and interviewed candidates from all over the world. Morrow got the nod because of his wealth of international experience: He was a senior executive for Vodafone in Europe and Japan before heading a utility company.
The executive change comes at a curious time. Clearwire has just announced it will press on the accelerator with its network build-out. The plan is to cover 80 markets by 2010. Currently, its Clear-branded service is only available in Portland, Ore. For this rapid expansion to take place, smooth operational execution is key. I would have thought that now is the worst time to get a new CEO, who would need several months to just get up to speed.
While it’s lined up $3 billion in funding from investors like chipmaker Intel and search giant Google, Clearwire may also need to raise more money to reach its goals, and Wolff had been instrumental in lining up financing. He also helped establish a relationship with carrier Sprint Nextel. Sprint and Clearwire have, in essence, pooled their resources to build a new high-speed wireless network. While Wolff stays on, his exact responsibilities are unclear, though Stanton says the new co-chairman will focus on strategy, financing and relationships with partners.
What could it all mean? This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if the executive change could signal Vodafone’s interest in getting in on the Clearwire game. As you’ll recall, Vodafone already owns a stake in Verizon Wireless and has, reportedly, been trying to buy out partner Verizon for years. Vodafone has long wanted to control a U.S. wireless carrier. Perhaps Morrow could help Vodafone and Clearwire get together. “They already have an existing partner,” says Stanton, who wouldn’t comment on the speculations.