Robert Dotson ’89
Robert Dotson ’89 staked claim in ‘cowboy space’ of wireless
By Ed Finkel
Robert Dotson ’89 began his career in the fast-food business but decided that an industry with 1 percent to 3 percent across-the-board growth did not provide enough sizzle. So in 1996, he jumped ship to become vice president of marketing for a 1,000-employee company called Western Wireless, which owned one market in Hawaii and a very limited roaming footprint.
“At that point in time, wireless was only for business,” Dotson says. “If you owned one of our phones in Hawaii, you could use it either in Hawaii or Washington, D.C. Those were the only two places that phone worked. Talk about limited roaming.”
But the company roamed far and fast, building itself through acquisitions and with help from the 1996 federal telecommunications deregulation legislation, which enabled wireless companies to attempt to penetrate the consumer market.
“That whole opportunity to create a consumer business out of what had been a B-to-B [market], or only good for the wealthy — the beauty of it was, it was a product everybody fell in love with,” he recalls. “It was a great opportunity, as a marketing guy, to identify an industry and take some of that market share from the big incumbents. These were oligopolies. … It was definitely a ‘cowboy space’ at that point in time. It’s easy to galvanize people around, ‘Let’s go attack AT&T.’ ”
Dotson continues to galvanize people as CEO of T-Mobile, which Western Wireless eventually became, one of four major companies in what is now a rapidly maturing market that’s looking for new cowboy spaces.
“It’s a high-growth industry, and within it we’re definitely one of the hyper-growth companies,” he says. “Most of what’s happened within the telecommunications category has been a byproduct of consolidation, mergers and acquisitions – Cingular and AT&T, Sprint and Nextel. Whereas most of our growth has been organic, growing the existing base.”
T-Mobile has enjoyed “pretty explosive growth” from 10 million customers in 2002 to 32 million now, Dotson says. Among the innovations that have helped to spark that expansion are the Sidekick integrated data and voice product, which Dotson compares to the iPhone; and a “Vonage-like” home-based phone service that runs over DSL or cable. “We’re expanding our horizons beyond the traditional mobile space,” he says.
Dotson is mindful of the need to keep that entrepreneurial edge as the company has grown to 38,000 employees. “One of the few things I lose sleep over is, how do we maintain that?” he says. “How do you keep all the great assets of where you come from, [and] then put rigor and discipline to where we are today?”
Alongside that challenge is recognizing the different inflection point T-Mobile faces after spending its first five to seven years figuring out “how you take this [product], and consumerize this and get this to the masses.”
Now the challenge is to continually refine that original product to keep it relevant. “I often tell my teams, ‘A hammer and a tomato are wireless too.’ Will the product have pictures of my kids? Will it carry my music? The traditional definition of wireless has changed fairly dramatically. How do we make sure that we carve out meaningful consumer space?”
Dotson insists that his employees understand and appreciate the company’s broad belief systems but he also wants people around him who will challenge him on day-to-day issues. “I’ve always said – this is the disease – every idea I have, I love,” he says. “That’s just not factual. Part of my leadership style is having people around me who say, ‘That’s not a good idea, and here’s why.’ You need a culture with questions and challenges.”
That’s because common belief systems don’t mean much without results, Dotson says. “It’s not enough to say, ‘I worked hard, and I tried hard.’ It’s the outcome that matters,” he says, “how you live the values.”
One value that Dotson spends little time talking about is the importance of integrity and ethics. “That may sound odd,” he says, but “if we need to talk about ethics and morals, you’re in the wrong business. We consider that such a foundational element of the individuals who come into the business that it’s a day-one discussion. There never needs to be another discussion about that.”
Posted September 2008