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Adam Neumann's Older Look-Alike Might Make We Work

Tara Lachapelle

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- John Legere may be exactly the kind of CEO WeWork needs. He brings much of the eccentricity and charisma that was initially appreciated about ousted founder Adam Neumann, but without all the headaches and liabilities. Is Legere ready to retire his closet of magenta T-shirts? 

We Co., the parent of the beleaguered office-sharing startup, is in discussions to recruit Legere, the current head of wireless carrier T-Mobile US Inc., as its next CEO,  the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday. The talks come after WeWork’s plans for an initial public offering imploded in grand fashion in recent weeks, as a litany of questionable decisions and conflicts of interests involving then-CEO Neumann came to light in a saga that has captivated Wall Street. WeWork, for a short time one of the world’s most valuable startups, had said in its summer IPO prospectus that its “future success depends in large part on the continued service of Adam Neumann.” Weeks later, Neumann was considered such a risk that the company decided it was better to effectively give him $1.2 billion to step away.

Hiring Legere would immediately help improve WeWork’s tarnished reputation, though repairing the business is another story. Office vacancies increased in the third quarter, and the company was at risk of running out of cash next year. Legere’s garish style and hectoring on Twitter may also cause some to wonder whether he’s just another Neumann; it’s certainly hard not to notice the physical resemblance between the long hair, loud personality and signature T-shirt-and-sports-coat pairing.

But few CEOs can say they’ve taken on a challenge as difficult as reviving T-Mobile — and succeeded. That’s Legere’s claim to fame. As I wrote in July 2018, even the groaners who are tired of his shtick and Twitter snark can’t argue against his track record.

When Legere became CEO of T-Mobile in 2012, it was a distant fourth-place competitor in the U.S. wireless market and losing customers. Now it’s the fastest-growing member of the industry, and its displaced Sprint as the No. 3 carrier. T-Mobile’s lower-priced plans and marketing mojo have even given AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. a run for their money. In the last five years, shares of all its closest rivals advanced anywhere from 12% to 21%. T-Mobile’s nearly tripled. 

Legere may seem like an odd choice given that he’s spent his career working in the telecommunications and technology industries. The connection becomes clearer when considering SoftBank Group Corp.’s role. The Japanese conglomerate built by billionaire Masayoshi Son not only controls WeWork — the result of a $9.5 billion rescue package — but also Sprint Corp., T-Mobile’s closest competitor and hopeful merger partner. Sprint Executive Chairman Marcelo Claure, who is also chief operating officer of SoftBank, was tapped to help fix WeWork’s problems. He’s spent a lot of time with Legere these last two years as they worked to sway federal and state officials to support the merger of the two wireless carriers. Legere has done with T-Mobile what Claure and his predecessors couldn’t with Sprint, even as SoftBank injected billions along the way. 

One might think that WeWork would seek out a lower-profile leader, given the roller-coaster it has been on the past few months; Legere is anything but that. And at 61 years old, it’s a little surprising that he would consider following up such a successful run at T-Mobile with a stint at a company as troubled as WeWork. T-Mobile has become part of his identity — he’s spotted in magenta T-Mobile gear whether he’s going for runs in New York City or filming his Facebook Live cooking show from his kitchen. T-Mobile shareholders wouldn't be happy to see Legere go. Worse, there's the appearance of a conflict of interest if SoftBank is pursuing Legere while the companies are separately renegotiating the terms of the Sprint merger.

That aside, it’s clear that Legere likes a challenge, and WeWork is the ultimate one.

To contact the author of this story: Tara Lachapelle at tlachapelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Beth Williams at bewilliams@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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