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Dan Hesse: In the Captain's Chair at Sprint

Dan Hesse of Sprint Nextel
Sprint Nextel CEO Daniel Hesse likes to finish what he starts.

When Hesse got the call in 1992 to take a potentially lucrative new post in AT&T's New Jersey headquarters two years into spearheading an ambitious telecom project in the Netherlands, he told his bosses "no."

His decision to stay could have been a career-killer -- AT&T typically rotated its executives into new positions every two years, grooming them to move up the corporate ladder. While Hesse knew there was risk in remaining past that point, he recalled wanting to finish what he had begun.

The $2 billion project in the Netherlands proved to be "a big turnaround situation," Hesse told InternetNews.com in a phone interview. "I ended up putting in five tough, hard years and left having improved the business performance of that operation very well."

"It was about me developing my own skills and doing something for myself. I worked hard to do that and had a real sense of personal accomplishment," said the 54-year-old Hesse, who took the Sprint (NYSE: S) helm in December 2007, two months following Gary Forsee's departure.

Hesse's tenacity in leadership -- as well as a love of the 60's sci-fi classic "Star Trek" -- earned him the nickname "Captain Kirk" during his 23 years at AT&T. His career began at the age of 24 after earning a bachelor's degree in European studies from the University of Notre Dame and an MBA from Cornell University.

[cob:Pull_Quote]Hesse's first AT&T role had been negotiating financial deals with European telecoms. He then held numerous management assignments within network operations, strategic planning and product management. That led to his Netherlands assignment, part of his stint in the top spot at AT&T Network Systems International.

His desire to stick it out and finish the project ultimately didn't seem to hurt his career at AT&T dramatically: His experience at the company culminated in serving as president and CEO of AT&T Wireless Services from 1997 to 2000.

But in 2000, Hesse stepped away from AT&T, serving from 2000 to 2004 as CEO of Terabeam, a wireless telecommunications service provider. He next took the helm at Embarq, a local telephone service provider that Sprint had spun-off in 2006 as part of its merger with Nextel. Less than a year later, he was tapped to run Sprint Nextel itself.

Despite all of the experience in the executive suite, Hesse, much like the celebrated starship captain for whom he's nicknamed, prefers tackling problems out in the field rather than stuck at headquarters.

"Kirk always wanted to be leading the command on the Enterprise," he explained with a small laugh, adding AT&T colleagues openly addressed him by the nickname. "I think they knew I loved 'Star Trek' and I took it as a compliment."

Such determination to make accomplishments outside of the boardroom ultimately paid off for Hesse's career. It may also prove valuable as the CEO oversees a number of critical initiatives as he aims to steer Sprint -- No. 3 in the market and coping with profitability and consumer service woes -- into a market-leading perch.

Steady as she goes

As Captain Kirk regularly found while battling Klingons, Romulans and other foes on "Star Trek," leading the way in hostile territory isn't always that easy. Likewise, it's no simple matter for Hesse to steer Sprint forward in an industry dominated by leader AT&T and second-place Verizon Wireless.

The Overland Park, Kan.-based carrier is cemented in third place in the industry, and most recently reported a quarterly loss of $344 million, or 12 cents per share, during the second quarter. For the same period a year earlier, Sprint had posted a profit of $19 million, or 1 cent per share.

Second-quarter results also included an 11 percent revenue drop to $9.06 billion, missing analysts' revenue expectations of $9.17 billion. Making matters worse, the company's customer base of 51.9 million customers is also down slightly from the 54 million it reported a year ago.

In stark contrast, AT&T and Verizon Wireless both reported positive second-quarter financial results and increased subscriber numbers.

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