What makes him powerful: Part of what makes Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) CEO Dan Hesse so powerful is his sheer doggedness in turning around Sprint, which he has been doing since taking the helm in late 2007. Hesse has also been focused on setting Sprint up for future growth by streamlining the company's network technologies through its Network Vision project.
Hesse has also served as chairman of CTIA this year, a position of prominence that has given him a stage to advocate for the trade organization's top priorities, most notably getting more wireless spectrum to wireless carriers. And yet, he has also shown himself to be a wily executive, sparring with AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) CEO Ralph de la Vega during an executive roundtable at the CTIA Wireless 2011 conference in March, just days after AT&T announced its proposed $39 billion purchase of T-Mobile USA.
Hesse has maintained his opposition to the AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile USA, going so far as to sue to block the deal on top of the Department of Justice's suit against the merger. Yet Hesse has also exercised leadership in more subtle ways.
Sprint's decision in April to join the Rural Cellular Association as an affiliate member showed savvy and spunk, for example. The trade group, long an advocate for small operators with fewer than 10 million customers, has criticized the CTIA for sometimes being too much of an advocate for Tier 1 operators. Although Hesse has straddled this divide effectively, Sprint's support for the RCA was a strong stance to take, and a signal that Sprint is casting its lot with the underdog carriers that feel threatened by the possibility of AT&T and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) could dominate the industry.
Despite those machinations, Hesse's biggest coup this year was finally getting Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone for Sprint. The $15.5 billion, four-year contract with Apple is a lot to swallow, as is the idea that the iPhone will account for 20 percent to 40 percent of Sprint's postpaid gross additions and upgrades during that period, but Hesse and Sprint could not pass up on the opportunity.
Meanwhile, the company's Network Vision plans, which will allow Sprint to deploy LTE by mid-2012, and move away from 4G dependence on WiMAX provider Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR), still need to be ironed out. Hesse's decision to cut a deal with LightSquared now seems ill-fated, given the continued GPS testing require for LightSquared's wholesale LTE network. However, Hesse's decision at the end of October to ink a non-binding deal with Clearwire that will allow the companies to essentially build a joint LTE network makes more sense, even if Clearwire's funding future remains uncertain.
Overall, Hesse has shown bold leadership this year in multiple ways, including throwing himself into the fight against AT&T/T-Mobile with as much vigor as any chief executive, especially because Sprint could have the most to lose if the deal gets approved. The Network Vision upgrade is complicated but necessary, and securing the iPhone for Sprint, while expensive, was necessary to stop Sprint's postpaid losses. Leadership means many things, but one is making a decision to chart a new course, and Hesse has done just that. --Phil