Alumnus interview: Gary Forsee, CE’72, CEO of Sprint

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On January 28, 2004

When they began the search for a new CEO last spring, the members of Sprint’s board of directors were looking for a proven leader in the telecommunications business. They found exactly what they were looking for in Gary D. Forsee, CE’72.

Gary Forsee, a 1972 UMR graduate, is now president and CEO of Sprint.

There was just one problem.

Forsee was working for telecom rival BellSouth, and BellSouth wasn’t eager to let him go. Sprint’s directors were determined that Forsee was the right leader for their company, which had slipped to the No. 4 position in the telecommunications business, and they were willing to fight to get him. The result was a very public legal battle, which Sprint eventually won. Forsee was named Sprint’s CEO in March. And for the Missouri native and 30-year veteran of the telecommunications industry, it’s been a welcome homecoming. Prior to joining BellSouth in 1999, Forsee spent a decade with Sprint and one year with Global One, the joint venture of Sprint Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom.

Described in the business press as a low-key but focused leader, Forsee is intent on bringing a new focus to Sprint. At his first meeting with shareholders in May, he outlined a five-point "100-day plan," which called for strengthening the company’s market position, improving customer service and satisfaction, strengthening "bottom-line results," developing "a culture of winning," and differentiating Sprint from the competition. "If I have learned anything in the first weeks here," he said at that meeting, "it is that the foundation is in place for all these activities."

Forsee recently sat down with MSM-UMR Alumnus news and features editor Andrew Careaga to discuss his vision for Sprint, the state of telecommunications, his UMR education, and the merits of caller ID. The interview was conducted in the studios of UMR public radio station KUMR, and can be heard in its entirety online (click on the "6/3/03" link). Here are a few excerpts of the interview, published in the Winter 2003 issue of the Alumnus.

How on earth does a civil engineer from UMR end up in the telecommunications business?

I had some interesting experiences in college working as a summer civil engineer for the (Missouri State) Highway Department. Then through my junior and senior years I had an internship with Procter & Gamble at their Charmin plant in Cape Girardeau, and got a taste of engineering management, along with engineering practice. As a result of those experiences, I focused my energy, when I was looking for places to work after college … on companies giving me a broad-based use of the engineering discipline. I ended up with a job at Southwestern Bell. … I started with Southwestern Bell in their basic management program.

You were in the news quite a bit earlier this spring when Sprint was interested in hiring you. Why do you think Sprint was so eager to get you on board?

I certainly didn’t go into the process with the understanding that it would have turned into the kind of feeding frenzy of the press at that point in time. First of all, BellSouth is a great company. I had a very good three years there and worked with a lot of fine people. Sprint had a very unfortunate situation involving their CEO (William Esrey, Sprint’s CEO since 1985) as well as the person viewed as the heir-apparent to the CEO (Ron LeMay). That was a very complicated and unfortunate circumstance that caused the board to conclude that they had to go outside for their next CEO.

They looked at my familiarity (with the company), having been at Sprint for 10 years during the ’90s. … I had a pretty good familiarity with the board, so I guess from their standpoint there was a comfort level with me. Obviously when I was approached, (I had) an immediate comfort level with that situation due to my connection, so it was one of those things that was a good match.

There was quite a media frenzy that sprang up with your transition to Sprint from BellSouth. How did you deal with that?

It was not expected. There was a press leak that kind of preordained that it would become a media event, whether I wanted it that way or not. That was the case both in Kansas City, because of the Sprint circumstances, as well as in Atlanta (BellSouth headquarters). I basically concluded on the front end that there was no upside to be gained by talking at all to the media. The story was there, and it was hard (to not comment.) It would have been so difficult to explain my side of the story, that I didn’t intend for this to happen, yet all of the data points were perhaps lined up in a different fashion. So I concluded early on that there was no upside to start defending myself or putting counterpoints out there. … It was frustrating to a lot of people trying to get my side or get me to say something about the circumstance, but I think over the two months that (the news) was going on, that was probably the right thing to do.

What are the major challenges for Sprint and for the telecommunications industry in general?

Well, it’s an incredibly complicated environment right now. I think there are a number of factors in the economy affecting the overall industry. It’s a very tough environment. Most large businesses have backed away from large infrastructure projects or communications projects. …

The second point is around technology substitution. Wireless in the last two years has really proliferated into other traditional services. You’re allowing customers to make the choice: Do they want to clip the wire on their phone at home or to use their minutes, which used to be long-distance minutes and now are any-distance minutes, on wireless? So Sprint is fortunate enough to play on both sides of that equation. Technology substitution is certainly a big part of that. …

From a Sprint perspective, Sprint is a very stable, solid company but with a financial performance … not unlike other companies that had taken on a lot of debt. As the economy started to turn, and that became a burden to the company, Sprint took some significant action to address that. Fortune magazine just came out last week and Sprint is the 54th largest company in the country. Sprint has $27 million in revenues and 25 million-plus customers. We are the only company that has two national networks and a national brand, so from a starting point of those assets, I certainly like how we are positioned to take advantage of that. … As the economy will hopefully turn somewhat over the next few months or the next year or so, I think Sprint is well positioned to take advantage of that.

How would you describe your leadership style?

First, you have to be able to understand the issues. … There is no substitute for being able to go deep on issues and at the same time be able to understand which things are important. So prioritization is very important. There are so many things going on in any company, so many issues — certainly in a company as broad as Sprint — that you could drown trying to cover all those. So understanding what all the priorities are and being sure the plans are put in place to focus on those is very important.

Probably another aspect of my style is focus. Having a clear agenda and putting that in motion and staying on point for that agenda is important part of a manager’s leadership style.

How did your UMR education prepare you for your career?

This was a very hard curriculum, and it prepared all of us who have gone through this university for how hard we’d have to work to achieve something. Understanding that toughness was an important part of that. Sometimes I wish I’d have worked harder, looking back at some of those challenges. But I think the campus life prepared you to understand how important working with teams is.

I had a great experience with the college fraternity I was in (Kappa Sigma), and the campus activities I was involved in –
– so at least in my case that really helped me understand the importance of getting along with people, a big group of people who are diverse in their backgrounds. Also, from the leadership standpoint, (I learned) how to make that diverse group of people work together for a common interest.

How long should you let the phone ring before you pick it up?

It depends on whether you’ve got caller ID or not. (Laughs.) Caller ID is a great call-screener. Buy it as quickly as you can.

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On January 28, 2004. Posted in News