The T-Mobile CFO talks about 5G, disruption and the innovation that matters most – putting the customer first.
Braxton Carter leads in his own unique way. With his magenta cowboy hat and equally colorful Twitter feed, he is the trailblazing Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of T-Mobile. The company is a communications powerhouse known for its innovative and unwavering focus on the customer. Braxton honed his disruption skills during the rapid growth of the wireless industry in the late ’90s. At the time he was a key player in a succession of start-ups, joint ventures and mergers that drove transformation at a breathtaking pace. With 5G in its sights and a merger with Sprint in the works, T-Mobile is riding high on the wave of digital disruption. Braxton recently spoke with Connect for our series on the Transformative Age, sharing a glimpse of what innovation looks like from his vantage point.
Tell us how you made your way from Ernst & Young LLP (EY) to the wireless industry.
I left EY in 1992 as a senior manager to work for Babbage’s, a predecessor of GameStop, and spent the next four years in retail. In ’96, I got recruited into my first wireless start-up, PrimeCo, because they were looking for somebody with a retail background. At that time, only about 30% of people in the US had wireless service, so it was a super-high-growth area. In ’99, I got promoted to chief financial officer, and in 2000 we formed Verizon Wireless, which was a combination of Bell Atlantic, AirTouch, PrimeCo and GTE. It was a fascinating period in the evolution of the industry.
How did you end up at T-Mobile?
I didn’t want to move back east to New Jersey, where Verizon was headquartered, so I went to work for my second wireless start-up, MetroPCS, which was focused on bringing wireless to the masses. We were the first carrier to do away with customer contracts. That whole concept just took off, and we grew MetroPCS into the fifth-largest carrier in the US. At that time, T-Mobile was a property that was significantly declining, and we merged with them to create the new T-Mobile. With a great management team, we achieved a massive turnaround and have scaled the business from 33 million customers to 80 million in less than six years.
When you think about that evolution, what elements of the EY experience have carried through for you?
First of all, I don’t think I’d be where I am without the 10 years I spent in public accounting and professional services. The experience allows you to see inside a wide variety of companies, and your learning is so accelerated. Second, being able to develop leadership capability was certainly a hallmark of my time at EY, including open communication and a “no surprises” philosophy. As a bonus, I went through the national instructor training program at EY, which gave me a tremendous foundation in being comfortable in front of groups of very capable people. This has enabled me to be very effective at telling our story and dealing with investors. And of course, I continue to have many ongoing relationships with the incredible network of EY people, and I’ve leveraged those relationships throughout my career.
Who are some of the EY people who’ve made a difference in your life?
Partners Herb Knutson and Donald Key in the Dallas office were outstanding, pragmatic but very disciplined in their approach to solving problems, and I’ve continued to stay in touch with both. Another partner, Fred Miller, really helped me in the formative parts of my career, and I learned so much from him over the years. I also had a tremendous number of wonderful peers in that office: Dave Dickson, David Heselton and Debra von Storch, to name a few. And Ryan Burke, who is now a partner, was a first-year staff when I was the controller at Babbage’s.
What do you see as the top issues facing the wireless industry?
First and foremost is the evolution of 5G and how companies can advance to maximize value in that evolution. Communications is a highly capital-intensive business, and investing in our network is our core competency. We put $40 billion into our network, which is one of the reasons that we’ve been so successful over the last five years, and with the combination with Sprint and the evolution of 5G, we’re going to put another $40 billion into the network in the next three years. And 5G, which creates a quantum increase in capacity and speed, is going to not only transform the way business is done today, but also be a platform for the development of many exciting things, from virtual reality to artificial intelligence to internet-of-things applications. It’s going to be an extremely exciting period.
Aside from the technology, what other innovations drive T-Mobile’s success?
We call ourselves the Un-carrier, and our innovation is, very simply, completely focused on the pain points of the customer in dealing with wireless companies. Before we came around, there was basically no change for 20 years. We changed forever the way that wireless is done in the US. With that has come incredible brand momentum and success in scaling our company.
How does T-Mobile earn trust?
It’s so important that your constituents, and Wall Street, can trust that you’ll do what you say you’re going to do. One of the first things we did was create a customer manifesto promising to deal with our customers in an open, transparent and fair manner. Privacy is critical, especially when it comes to cybersecurity, and that’s of utmost concern, from blocking robocalls to protecting consumer data. We share location data only in connection with public safety and things that are sanctioned for the health and welfare of our customers.
What do you believe will create sustainability for T-Mobile going forward?
In the medium term, 5G is going to be a catalyst for a convergence of broadband cable and wireless. It’s going to change everything for everyone, which will be very powerful. On the micro level, keeping our eye on our North Star — our focus on the customer — is going to be critical for ultimate sustainability of this model as it evolves.
Do you see any synergies between EY’s culture and T-Mobile’s culture?
A commitment to excellence and fundamentally doing it right. Life is too short to take shortcuts. EY also continues to evolve its culture as we continue to evolve ours, to ultimately be a sustainable, fun business.
What does it mean to you to be an EY alumnus?
Everything I learned about leadership at EY, coupled with the talented people I worked with there and the very high-quality partners and engagement teams I’ve worked with since, has not only been a pleasure, it’s the reason I’ve been able to accomplish the things that I’ve accomplished.
More about Braxton:
- Lives in the Cascade Mountains outside Seattle and says “there’s nothing better”
- Loves his work but says family and friends ultimately make life fulfilling
- Serves on the Board of Alumni for the Leeds School of Business of the University of Colorado, his alma mater