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The Woman Behind Sprint's Chicago Shakeup

Sarah Thomas
8/27/2015
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Tracy Nolan is no stranger to Chicago, the wireless market or holding the title of president and general manager of Illinois and Wisconsin. She is, however, new to Sprint and already shaking things up in the Midwest.

Nolan joined Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) in April as one of CEO Marcelo Claure's new appointments to makeover the carrier's business, network and reputation, but she'll be the first to admit that her position is experimental.

This is the first time Sprint has appointed a president and general manager of a specific region, replete with her own P&L line and complete responsibility for 900 employees spanning sales, customer care, marketing, IT and the network.

"I'm truly the trial," Nolan told Light Reading in a recent visit to Sprint's Chicago office downtown, adding that if it works out, Sprint may extend the model to other regions of the US.

Tracy Nolan, President & GM, Illinois & Wisconsin, Sprint
Before joining Sprint, Nolan held leadership positions at Hyla Mobile, American Communications Network, Verizon Wireless, Bell Atlantic Mobile and Frontier Cellular.
Before joining Sprint, Nolan held leadership positions at Hyla Mobile, American Communications Network, Verizon Wireless, Bell Atlantic Mobile and Frontier Cellular.

It's a new way of operating for Sprint, but it's certainly not a new concept. In fact, Sprint borrowed the model from Verizon Wireless where Nolan held the same position from 2001 to 2006. Verizon wasn't number one when she came on board, but Nolan helped it down that path -- a path that Sprint would surely like to emulate.

Nolan knew Claure when he was CEO at Brightstar Corp. and she was at Hyla Mobile, formerly eRecycling Corp, a cell phone recycling company. He brought her on board around the same time he was shaking up the entire C-Suite at Sprint's Overland Park, Kan., headquarters. (See Sprint Swaps in a New CFO, COO & CTO.)

"You're either moving forward or backwards, not standing still," Nolan recalls Claure telling his new team.

It's no secret Sprint has been actually moving backwards in the past few years, most recently losing its number three slot by subscriber numbers to T-Mobile US Inc. in this past quarter. But, Claure and Masayoshi Son, CEO of Sprint's Japense owner SoftBank Corp. are confident that a densification plan they're calling Next-Generation Network will not only help Sprint beat T-Mobile, but propel it to the number one slot in the next three-to-five years. (See Sprint's Claure: '3 to 5 Years' to Turnaround, Sprint CEO Claims Next-Gen Network Will Be #1 and Sprint Promises Better LTE on Lower Capex.)

They aren't revealing specific details about Next-Generation Network yet, but Nolan is a key part of the plan as Chicago is the carrier's marquee market. It's where Sprint will first bring all of its most advanced technologies, including carrier aggregation, Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) antennas and 8T8R, or eight transmitters, eight receivers radio technology, as well as develop market specific marketing and offers.

Nolan's job is to ensure all this happens without interrupting the customer experience, as well as oversee the Sprint for Chicago initiative to bring more jobs and investment to the Chicago-land area. (See Sprint to Bring 540 Jobs, LTE-A to Chicago .)

When she came on board in Chicago, Nolan had four goals around network, distribution, customer experience and internally building a cross-channel approach to consumers. The network improvements would come via the aforementioned LTE-Advanced improvements and macro cell densification. Distribution would come through its deal with Radio Shack and plans to add 115 retail locations -- 54 of which are already up -- before the end of the year. (See Sprint Teams Up With Bankrupt RadioShack .)

Both would help improve the customer experience, but Nolan says she also simply wanted people to think of Sprint more in Chicago and know it's a viable option in wireless. So, she has "painted the town yellow," stepping up the marketing here and hiring 200 additional employees, out of the 300 it positions it plans to add this year.

Finally, the new Midwest boss wanted to create an omni-channel approach to customer care so that Sprint could interact with customers on any channel, whether it be in stores, on the PC or on a mobile device. (See Sprint to Woo Customers With 'Cut Your Bill in Half' App and Sprint Brings Handset Setup Direct 2 You.)

"We really need to focus on the customer; that's what it's all about," Nolan says. "An enterprise customer is a consumer at home, so we look at all aspects of the customer touch points and bring that feeling that customer service isn't on the phone, it's everywhere we go."


For more on Sprint's progress in the US, visit the dedicated mobile content section
here on Light Reading.


The new Sprint
As the president and general manager in the Midwest, Nolan is giving the authority to make all of this happen for Sprint -- breaking down hierarchies internally, responding quickly to customer complaints and building a stronger presence for the carrier. (See Sprint Accelerates Entrepreneurial Efforts.)

For example, when she felt the brand wasn't connecting with Milennials, Sprint went to Lollapooloza with them. Or, when customers complained about the restocking fee after Sprint's 14-day smartphone trial, she did away with it. It's all part of the new modus operandi under Claure.

Nolan says she recently had the opportunity to present on how things were going in Chicago to both Son and Claure, and believes their vision, approach to work and energy is what the company needs to get it right this time around. She says the two men, Son and Claure, are similar to each other -- and to her -- in many ways. (See Hesse Out, Claure In: Sprint Is Son's House Now!)

"They tell it as it is or say how they feel," she says. "I am very similar to that too. It makes you want to work harder for them because they are open and honest in telling you how it is. I've seen Masa be very engaged in making this is a great organization."

Yui Namiki, the communications marketing manager for Chicago, has felt the change too. She says that Claure has made a huge impact at the culture at Sprint, opening it up compared to former CEO Dan Hesse's top-down approach. He balances being accessible to employees with his celebrity status at the company, obliging anything from a selfie to feedback on an idea to implement. (See Sprint CEO: Price Cuts First, Best Network Next .)

"Marcelo is a CEO-slash-rockstar," Nolan adds. "Internally, people want selfies with him and want to see him and meet him. He's a very different CEO than I've ever had in an organization."

His celebrity status, however, ultimately won't be what makes or breaks Sprint. That all hangs on its ability to retain customers and attract new ones without sacrificing its financials. That, of course, ultimately falls on its network and whether its new network densification plan can really right the ship in a way that Network Vision failed to do.

For evidence of its progress going forward, look first to Chicago and Nolan's team -- where it goes, the rest of the country should hopefully follow.

"With Network Vision, there was a lack of confidence in who we were," Nolan says. "We're a very different company today than who we were."

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading

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Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
9/1/2015 | 3:00:35 PM
More love for Chicago
Wow, Sprint is really making a big push for Chicago. It announced today that will add another 750 new jobs on top of the 300 already announced, as well as invest $150 million here by the end of 2016.
MikeP688
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MikeP688,
User Rank: Light Sabre
8/31/2015 | 4:48:35 AM
Re: Tracy takes Chicago
I have been on the record wanting Sprint to succeed.  We need competition and choice--and hope that Sprint as it continues its latest experimentation with reorganization will yield success.    They are also not sitting idly by with some of the advertising I saw over the weekend.   
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
8/27/2015 | 12:38:43 PM
Tracy takes Chicago
I really enjoyed Tracy. She has a great energy, background, vision for Sprint and mindset about getting it back in the running. She also has a tough task in front of her, of course. Hopefully we'll hear more about Next-Generation Network plans and timeline soon.

Incidentially, Tracy's also a great role model and mentor for women in the organization and in Chicago. More on that next week when we feature her for Mentor Monday (9/7)!
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