I met the head of a faceless corporation today, a little company known as AT&T. You may or may not recognize the name Randall Stephenson. I didn't know it before a few months ago. He's the CEO. When a PR rep for AT&T offered me a few minutes with the guy, a scant 10 or 15 of them, I decided to spend the time finding out more about the man than his corporate policies. (Those policies obviously being rehearsed and bottled and available with any sort of lit search.) What kind of man does it take to run the Death Star? [image courtesy of the WSJ]
On the way to the meeting, my iPhone dropped four calls, and when I got Fletch on the line, the PR person for AT&T that day, he sounded like his mouth was full of marbles. Damn AT&T reception. I said to myself that I would ask the CEO why this was the case when every other carrier's quality and reception was usually much better. Opening the door to the Palace Hotel's Napa room, Randall Stephenson stood up in the stuffy board room and came around the table to shake my hand. He was flanked by high level PR, Marketing and Communications people. He was tall. Older. With weathered skin and all his teeth lined up and white. He introduced himself as Randall, and he had a Southern-ish gentlemanly draw. His face gave away no sense of fast twitch thinking you'd detect in most people who work in fast businesses like media, telecom or journalism. I'd planned on asking him where his office was in the Death Star, as an opening question, but this man didn't deserve that, I could already tell. This time, I'd only have time to meet the man; next time, I'd ask more pressing questions.
We sat down, and he noted my raincoat and asked if it was raining outside. A bit, I responded. Then I jumped into introducing myself and Gizmodo. I had to assume that old school VPs and CEOs wouldn't have a clue about us, and what we do, so I explained my history at Wired and now, this blog. He nodded, and said that blogs were an important medium these days, but admitted that he didn't know much about them. I smiled, and then asked him what the biggest thing is that keeps him up at night; the first thing that pops into his head in the morning when he wakes up. I decided that the head of an ultra complicated machine like AT&T had to have priorities, and I wanted to know them.
He was talking about the 700Mhz spectrum. AT&T needed it. It made sense. Despite all this talk about the new AT&T, and whatever internal changes (or lack of changes) would occur there, they still needed pipes, and today, the pipes are through the air. Like real estate, there is only so much of this for use. It's gold. He then told me a bit of the backstory behind the $2.5 billion deal with Aloha partners, who they are licensing some bandwidth from before the FCC auction for the 700MHz. Turns out he met one of the owners of Aloha on some non-related business (golf) and first discovering he was a fellow alum of the same university. After Randall realized he had some spectrum, they started negotiating. It's funny to think that $2.5 billion dollar deal can go down accidentally and coincidentally, but it goes to show that it's a very small world out there when it comes to dealmaking. (And you and I have no money.)
I had only one more question for Randall. Where was he before being CEO?
"I've been at AT&T for 25 years." And before that?
"I was in school, and needed a job." How did you start?
"I started the old fashioned way. I got a job through my brother, who was doing installations. I started in the computer room." Aha, a technical start is always a good history for a CEO. Being in touch with the technical roots of a technical company is never a drawback. "My brother is still an installer. They tried to promote him but he still likes what he does. Sometimes he comes in and says 'You son of a bitch, what are you guys doing up there?!'" The Marketing exec next to him said, "He's the only one in the company who can get away with saying that about Randall..." It must be useful to have that kind of ground level internal feedback mechanism from someone who has no reason to lie to you, an older brother, working at the company as a line technician. And now AT&T is taking blog interviews.
Randall then started asking me the question of how Gizmodo worked as a business. We sell banner ads, just like the NY Times does, I told him. I glanced at the fact that it could be a high margin business, with a few talented writers and little overhead. But that it was hard work, because we had to be a combination of speed and accuracy for hours at a time. He nodded. I'd read in Fortune that he's keen on TV, owning a 100-inch set and obviously he's up on telco issues, so I suppose the internet side of the business is something he's still learning.
The company is so big, sometimes the first time he hears about wrongdoings is when he reads about it online. "We do WHAT?!" was his reaction to the Pearl Jam fiasco, where AT&T was accused of censoring artists on stage.
Without proof one way or another, there's a lot of doubt as to what exactly is happening internally at AT&T to make it a new company. (See this Valleywag piece.) I have no idea about that. But if they are trying to enact change, listening is always a good place to start. Seems like that's happening. We'll see what changes come next.
Shit, I forgot to ask him about the view from the Death Star office, and I forgot to complain about my reception. Next time.