11. F.J. Pollak, President and CEO, TracFone Wireless – Most Powerful People in Wireless


F.J. Pollak, President and CEO, TracFone WirelessWhat makes him powerful: Little is known about F.J. Pollak--as the head of TracFone he rarely gives public interviews and does not overtly attend major trade shows.

Pollak launched TracFone in 1996 under the name Topp Telecom. After just a few years the company managed to ink wireless service deals with many of the nation's major wireless network providers, and sold its prepaid Nokia (NYSE:NOK) and Motorola phones in 15,000 retail outlets nationwide.

Pollak then attracted the attention of billionaire Carlos Slim's Telefonos de Mexico, which purchased a controlling interest in Topp for $57.5 million in 1999. The next year Telefonos de Mexico became América Móvil and Topp became TracFone.

Under Pollak's direction, TracFone has grown into the nation's largest MVNO and its fifth largest wireless provider with 21.6 million subscribers. The company managed to accomplish this through a variety of clever strategies, including attacking the market through multiple brands (Straight Talk, Net10, SafeLink and others) and, perhaps more importantly, by playing the nation's top wireless carriers against each other.

TracFone is in the unique position of acting as an MVNO for all of the nation's top wireless carriers: Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), T-Mobile USA, Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and others. As a result, TracFone can shift its service to whichever carrier is providing the best wholesale rates. It's a strategy that remains largely unmatched in the U.S. wireless industry.

That said, Pollak faces his share of problems. TracFone continues to work to tap into the nation's move toward smartphones, and it still trails the nation's top postpaid carriers in terms of smartphone selection. Further, according to a comprehensive CNNMoney article, TracFone could face troubles due to a tightening in the government's Lifeline program, which largely funds TracFone's SafeLink offering.

Finally, it seems like every week another new MVNO launches in essentially the same space that TracFone plays in: unlimited prepaid wireless service. The most recent entrant is Ultra Mobile, a T-Mobile MVNO that offers unlimited talk and text, 1 GB of high-speed data and around 1,000 minutes of international calling for $49. And Ultra Mobile isn't alone; other new MVNOs attempting to rise above the noise include Ting, Republic Wireless and Solavei.

With close to two decades of experience in wireless, it's a safe bet that Pollak will be able to mount a comprehensive response to these challenges. Indeed, it's clear he's willing to invest in the business to help it grow, based on TracFone's purchase of Simple Mobile earlier this year.+Mike

Special Report: Top 25 Most Powerful People in U.S. Wireless 2012