Clearwire Announces New CEO

Posted by: Olga Kharif on March 9, 2009

After the market close today, wireless broadband provider Clearwire announced a new CEO. Bill Morrow is taking over the role from Ben Wolff, a co-CEO or CEO of the company since 2004. A long-time sidekick of Chairman Craig McCaw, Wolff will stay on as co-chairman.

As unexpected as Morrow’s appointment is, Clearwire has, apparently, been searching for a new CEO for two months, says director John Stanton. It used headhunters and interviewed candidates from all over the world. Morrow got the nod because of his wealth of international experience: He was a senior executive for Vodafone in Europe and Japan before heading a utility company.

The executive change comes at a curious time. Clearwire has just announced it will press on the accelerator with its network build-out. The plan is to cover 80 markets by 2010. Currently, its Clear-branded service is only available in Portland, Ore. For this rapid expansion to take place, smooth operational execution is key. I would have thought that now is the worst time to get a new CEO, who would need several months to just get up to speed.

While it’s lined up $3 billion in funding from investors like chipmaker Intel and search giant Google, Clearwire may also need to raise more money to reach its goals, and Wolff had been instrumental in lining up financing. He also helped establish a relationship with carrier Sprint Nextel. Sprint and Clearwire have, in essence, pooled their resources to build a new high-speed wireless network. While Wolff stays on, his exact responsibilities are unclear, though Stanton says the new co-chairman will focus on strategy, financing and relationships with partners.

What could it all mean? This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if the executive change could signal Vodafone’s interest in getting in on the Clearwire game. As you’ll recall, Vodafone already owns a stake in Verizon Wireless and has, reportedly, been trying to buy out partner Verizon for years. Vodafone has long wanted to control a U.S. wireless carrier. Perhaps Morrow could help Vodafone and Clearwire get together. “They already have an existing partner,” says Stanton, who wouldn’t comment on the speculations.

Reader Comments

Michael

March 9, 2009 9:17 PM

So you are implying that Vodafone might be Sprint/Nextel + Clearwire's buyer down the road? Could be.

gerrrg

March 10, 2009 2:11 AM

I find it tough to swallow the idea of Vodafone making a play for Clearwire, let alone Sprint. Both are bleeding like there's no tomorrow...well Sprint says that it's stopped the bleeding, but who knows how much truth there is in that?

Vodafone would likely have to sell their stake in Verizon, a solid company that operates in the black, to invest in two companies that aren't.

I don't think Vodafone investors will look kindly upon seeing Vodafone having to write down assets like Google and Intel did on their shared stakes in Clearwire. And worse, it would further dilute the stake of Comcast, Intel and Google.

I'd gander to speculate that the original investors would rather put more money into Clearwire than let someone else come in and dilute their positions, particularly since neither of those investors are dying from a dearth of cash.

But interestingly, at Intel's last call, they did suggest that they felt Clearwire had enough cash on hand. Maybe it was Intel that was pushing Wolff out behind the scenes, dissatisfied with his direction and speed of deployment?

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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