AT&T-Time Warner Deal Raises Profile Of CEO Randall Stephenson

Oct 26, 2016
Originally published on October 26, 2016 7:33 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

AT&T's proposed merger with Time Warner raised the profile of AT&T's boss, so this morning, we profile Randall Stephenson. He graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma. He rose to lead a tech company that defines the past of communications and hopes to survive in the future. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: When Randall Stephenson started out, he was nobody's idea of a media mogul. Here he was a Berkley's Haas School of Business in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RANDALL STEPHENSON: I never in my wildest dreams, when I started out working in IT in Oklahoma City - which is the tech capital of the world, right? - that I would one day have the privilege of being able to sit in this capacity.

ZARROLI: Stevenson started out at Southwestern Bell in 1982, slowly moving up the ladder. He built a reputation as a fix-it guy who could solve thorny problems. Once, he complained to his boss about his assignments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHENSON: I said, I'm really getting tired of this. Every time I get something running well, you yank me off of it, throw me into another mess. And his name was Charlie. He looked back at me. He said, it's taken you a long time to figure out what your value to this company is, hasn't it?

ZARROLI: Stephenson eventually became a protege of Ed Whitacre, the company's CEO. Whitacre had built Southwestern Bell into the AT&T that exists today, mostly through acquisitions. And in 2007, Stephenson replaced him. Telecommunications analyst Craig Moffett says AT&T shareholders have high expectations, and that's been a challenge for Stephenson

CRAIG MOFFETT: There has always been a great deal of pressure on Randall Stephenson to say, how do you put your mark on this company, and how do you do deals that continue the legacy of making AT&T bigger and stronger?

ZARROLI: The Justice Department shot down an effort by AT&T to buy the wireless company T-Mobile. The purchase of DirecTV last year was approved. As CEO, Stephenson has sometimes taken on progressive causes. He gave a well-received speech supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and he helped overturn the Boy Scouts' ban on gay people. His persona is cordial and approachable. Dallas Morning News consumer columnist Dave Lieber wrote an article excoriating AT&T over its customer service. A few days later, Stephenson invited him to lunch to talk.

DAVE LIEBER: He's a gentleman. He's very Southern in terms of his - his look at the world. He's very polite. He listens to people. He has a - he's a really decent fellow, I think.

ZARROLI: But Lieber says nothing really seemed to come of the lunch. He still gets many complaints from readers about AT&T. He thinks the company has simply become too big and unmanageable. With this latest merger, AT&T will get even bigger. Craig Moffett, too, is skeptical about the deal. He doesn't see the business rationale for buying Time Warner. He does express some praise for Stephenson's management skills.

MOFFETT: Randall is a very smart guy. He's been doing this a long time. He knows the ins and the outs of both running the business and deal-making and, importantly, of trying to deal with Washington.

ZARROLI: And that will come in handy over the next few months. The Time Warner purchase is already generating complaints from politicians and consumer groups, who say it will concentrate too much power in the hands of one company. And regulators are promising to scrutinize the deal carefully. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.