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Will Sprint CEO stay on with WorldCom?

Following the largest corporate merger in history, the self-styled Wild West image of MCI WorldCom's Bernard Ebbers has analysts wondering whether he can hold the fort with another strong executive.

    Following the largest corporate merger in history, the self-styled Wild West image of MCI WorldCom's Bernard Ebbers has analysts wondering whether he can hold the fort with another strong executive.

    When Sprint and MCI WorldCom announced their $129 billion deal yesterday, Ebbers joked that the addition of Sprint CEO William Esrey will mean he's no longer the only cowboy in the company.

    After all, the executives explained that Esrey agreed to the multibillion-dollar deal over mobile satellite phone while on horseback in Colorado.

    Ebbers does have a long history as a dealmaker--following more than 60 acquisitions over the past four years--but not necessarily as a peacemaker. And after 14 years at the helm of Sprint, some industry observers wonder whether Esrey--like other executives before him who have seen their companies acquired by Ebbers--intends to stay.

    "Esrey is out. That's it. It's easy," said Mark Winther, group vice president for worldwide telecommunications at International Data Corporation. "There's not a conflict here over who's the executive. Ebbers runs the show. He's made that clear in every acquisition."

    Indeed, Ebbers will retain the role of chief executive in the combined WorldCom, if federal regulators approve the deal. For his part, Esrey will serve as chairman of the board of directors.

    Sprint president Ron LeMay also will serve as chief operating officer of the combined WorldCom--but 10 of the 16 directors on WorldCom's board will hail from the corporate ranks of MCI WorldCom.

    "The company is clearly going to be run by Ebbers and his people," said Steve Koppman, a telecommunications analyst at Dataquest. "It's hard for me to see [Esrey] playing second fiddle for very long."

    Answering to another executive is just not in Ebbers's nature--but he's willing to listen to others, some say.

    "Bernie Ebbers has never had a boss," said Brian Adamik, senior vice president for telecommunications research at the Yankee Group. "Bernie has pulled off 60 mergers and they've worked. But in each of those deals, he's remained the kingpin.

    "Bernie will be the first to admit he's not a telecom guy, he's a deal guy," Adamik added. "But he's surrounded himself with a solid management team, so you can't knock that."

    Still, others question whether the 59-year-old Esrey would want to leave.

    "[Esrey] was very adamant that he is going to stay in Kansas City and he expects to be involved in the combined company," said Sprint spokesman Russ Robinson. "He is not the kind of guy who retires. It's not his character."

    An early exit could prove to be lucrative, as various media reports have estimated Esrey's stock options could be worth anywhere from $400 million to $690 million.

    Andy Belt, executive vice president at consulting firm Renaissance Worldwide, said the future for the two cowboys may only be clear once the deal officially closes.

    "Let's wait and see how the reality feels," Belt said.