Sprint’s New CEO Went From Phone Seller to Beckham’s Pal

Sprint Corp.’s new 43-year-old chief executive officer, Marcelo Claure, grew an upstart mobile-phone vendor into a $7 billion business he tapped to fund his love of soccer and enter Miami’s celebrity-filled social scene.

The 6-foot-6-inch (2-meter) Claure, who holds both U.S. and Bolivian citizenship, founded Brightstar Corp. in 1997, three years after taking a job as a general manager of Bolivia’s soccer federation. His move last year to sell a 57 percent stake to SoftBank Corp. for $1.26 billion elevated him to the cusp of $1 billion in net worth, a topic that made him laugh in a May interview with Bloomberg News.

“I’m happy with the amount of wealth I’ve created for myself,” Claure said at the time. “I like to leave it at that.”

Claure -- pronounced CLOW-rey -- said in a March speech in Barcelona that he got his start in business early, selling clothes outside his mother’s house when he was 10 years old. He said that while attending Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, he started a company that bought and sold frequent-flier miles, giving him a “pretty good lifestyle” for a college student.

“He’s young, he definitely brings an entrepreneurial spirit, which I think Sprint needs,” said Jennifer Fritzsche, an analyst at Wells Fargo & Co. in Chicago. “That youth is an asset.”

World Cup

One of his life-changing moments came when the Bolivian soccer team he was working with qualified for the World Cup in 1994, Claure said. Another was taking his telephone startup from scratch to $4 billion in revenue in five years.

“A lot of people say to be an entrepreneur you have to be a big dreamer and I think it goes well beyond being a big dreamer,” he said in Barcelona. “You’ve got to have the capability to execute because a lot of times vision without execution is just a failure.”

Claure will replace Dan Hesse, 60, who has led the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier since December 2007. SoftBank, which owns 80 percent of Sprint, is also buying Claure’s remaining stake in Brightstar for an undisclosed price. Claure’s elevation comes after Sprint abandoned talks to combine with T-Mobile US Inc. because of regulatory concerns, a person with knowledge of the matter said yesterday. The new CEO will need to finish the rollout of high-speed services and stem a loss of customers to the other three major U.S. carriers.

Fresh Eyes

“He’s good at cost control -- you have to be to be able to grow the company like he did,” said Fritzsche, who rates Sprint shares outperform. “Sprint could be a leaner company in a lot of ways, and I think we’ll see it looked at with a fresh set of eyes” with Claure.

Claure, who owns Bolivian soccer team Bolivar, has grown accustomed to juggling several responsibilities at once. He joined Sprint’s board in January and was still coming to grips with the role in May.

“When you become a board member of a publicly traded company the size of Sprint, it requires to spend some time,” he said then. “So I’ve been spending some time with Sprint, I’ve got to run Brightstar, we’ve got to do the soccer team in Miami. My soccer team in Bolivia is doing better than ever, so that forces you down to go watch the games. And then several investments. And family, obviously.”

Now he’ll have to add “framily” to the mix -- Sprint’s marketing term for friends and family. While he’s already a board member, Claure is still a “true outsider” who will be an agent of change in a staid corporate culture, said Walt Piecyk, an analyst at BTIG LLC, in a note today.

Network Rollout

“Claure has an opportunity to redefine Sprint’s message and build some anticipation for the new network rollout,” Piecyk said.

Claure is stepping into a company that Hesse, an experienced hand with decades in the phone business, had helped stabilize after a disastrous merger with Nextel Communications Inc. led to subscriber losses and customer-service complaints. Hesse worked to restore Sprint’s image, starring in a series of black-and-white TV commercials to pledge the company’s commitment to customers.

While he shaped up Sprint enough to attract a takeover from SoftBank, Hesse was unable to stem subscriber losses, ending his tenure without a single annual gain in monthly contract customers.

Bank Rejection

While Claure hasn’t run a public company, the firm he founded has grown quickly. Brightstar, based in Miami, distributes mobile phones and provides handset insurance and financial services with operations in about 50 countries and about 9,500 employees, according to its website. After banks rejected his loan requests, he persuaded friends to provide startup capital for the company. He said he took Brightstar’s name by borrowing from his main competitors at the time: BrightPoint Inc. and Cellstar.

“We took the best of each one of them,” Claure said.

Claure became a familiar face in Miami this year as he appeared courtside with British soccer star David Beckham at Miami Heat basketball games, after the two met during a party hosted by singer Jennifer Lopez, according to the Miami Herald. He joined with Beckham and “American Idol” producer Simon Fuller to try to bring a Major League Soccer team to Miami, where he said the city’s connections to Latin America will help bring success. That effort has struggled.

Stars ‘Aligned’

Two successive proposals by the Claure-Beckham-Fuller team to build a Miami soccer stadium have been rejected after facing local opposition from groups ranging from Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. to billionaire car magnate Norman Braman. Miami-Dade County officials have said they are willing to keep working to find a suitable site.

“What kills me is that the most dynamic and cosmopolitan city in the U.S. doesn’t have a soccer team,” Claure said in the interview earlier this year. “Now all the stars are aligned.”

Claure will be leaving the city he so admires, relocating to the Kansas City area, since Sprint is based in the suburb of Overland Park, Kansas. He didn’t respond to interview requests via e-mail.

Claure has had more sporting success back in Bolivia, where he bought Bolivar in 2008. The team, which plays in capital city La Paz, counts President Evo Morales as a fan. The team beat Argentina’s San Lorenzo, which has the support of Pope Francis, 1-0 last month, though an earlier defeat by the same team left it unable to advance past the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores tournament.

Presidential Fan

“He’s the biggest fan,” Claure said of Morales. “San Lorenzo is the team of the pope. So Evo gave an interview in which he apologized in advance for beating his team.”

Sprint is starting Claure off with a $1.5 million salary, $24 million in stock-based compensation and a target bonus of 250 percent of his salary this year. Along with the purchase of his Brightstar stake, his hiring as Sprint’s CEO will give him the resources to expand his personal investments -- if he can find the time.

“We have a private fund that makes investment in real estate, we have several buildings coming up in Latin America, we have mobile payments in Peru. We are in the educational sector in Mexico so I have a lot of different personal investments,” he said in May. “But also my time is more limited as I’ve also joined the Sprint board of directors.”

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