Sprint CEO aims for winning strategy

Sprint's battered stock price has fueled talk that the company could become takeover bait. Hesse says he's not a seller but would consider any serious offer that included a "significant" premium. "If somebody came to us with a really big check, we'd listen. But it would have to be a really big price."

One thing he won't be doing, however, is selling off parts of the business, such as long-distance, just to get a pop in the stock. Going that route, he says, would be a "huge distraction" for management. Hesse also thinks short-term fixes like that are "moronic. … Why don't you just sell your heart or your brain? It just doesn't work."

Another thing that doesn't work: having two headquarters. Sprint Nextel has its operational headquarters in Kansas City and its executive headquarters in Reston, Va. Kansas City is Sprint's longtime home; Reston was Nextel's. Hesse thinks the two-city approach was a mistake, saying it sent the wrong message to employees and compounded the company's cultural clashes.

The Sprint chief says those days are just about over. "There will be one headquarters," he says.

But which one? Hesse hasn't made a final decision, but common sense would suggest Kansas City. About 14,000 Sprint employees live in the Kansas City area; Sprint has a sprawling, campus-style office in Overland Park, about 45 minutes south of the city.

The cultural divide could be tougher to fix.

Hesse has a novel approach to that, as well. He recently polled all 60,000 employees on 17 "cultural imperatives," behaviors that will define Sprint's corporate culture. The poll, via e-mail, asked employees to rank the importance of a number of factors, including accountability, customer focus and innovation. With 48 hours to respond, about 30,000 did.

Hesse says he's using those responses to help define Sprint's culture. "After that," he says pointedly, "I don't ever want to hear about two cultures again."

Hesse, meantime, keeps jotting down notes on those white boards, looking for ways to buy time and differentiate Sprint from the pack. Customer service is a big part of his thinking. The Sprint chief says he starts every meeting with a discussion of ways to improve the customer experience. Branding — specifically, clarifying the now-muddled Sprint and Nextel brands in the marketplace — is another topic that consumes him.

There's a common theme that runs to the heart of every discussion, however. Hesse says he finds himself asking the same question, essentially, over and over: "What can we do to make ourselves different" in the marketplace?

For Hesse, that's the beginning, the middle and the end of every strategy session. To his way of thinking, that's what will ultimately save Sprint, which remains, bruises and all, one of the grand names in global communications.

"There are no quick fixes here, no magic bullet," Hesse says, reflecting on the challenges — and unique opportunities — ahead. "But if we do the right things, I really do think there is a terrific opportunity here."

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