The potential merger between Sprint and T-Mobile ultimately didn’t happen because of a disagreement over control.
That’s what Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure explained today during a discussion at the Wells Fargo Securities 2017 Media & Telecom Conference.
T-Mobile and Sprint, the No. 3 and No. 4 U.S. wireless companies behind Verizon and AT&T, have been talking about merging, off and on, for several years. Sprint parent company SoftBank nearly acquired T-Mobile in 2014 but the deal fell through after U.S. regulators expressed concerns.
Merger talks heated up again over the past few months and it looked like an agreement was near. But the deal reportedly hit a stumbling block last week because of a disagreement over ownership of a combined T-Mobile/Sprint entity. This past Saturday the companies confirmed that the merger was off.
Claure on Wednesday shared more details about the disagreement over ownership. He first noted that “Sprint was never for sale,” before explaining how SoftBank wanted to initially acquire a cable operator. SoftBank made a bid to combine Charter with Sprint, but Charter wasn’t interested, Bloomberg reported.
Then Sprint and SoftBank turned its attention — again — to a potential tie-up with T-Mobile.
“It was a fascinating experience, for the first time getting to know and meet the T-Mobile management team,” Claure noted.
But in the end, SoftBank leader Masayoshi Son “wasn’t prepared to relinquish control of Sprint,” said Claure, who also sits on the SoftBank board.
“We figured out that having a telco in the largest market in the world was something strategic to the [SoftBank board] that we were not willing give away control to anybody,” Claure added.
Executives from T-Mobile and its parent Deutsche Telekom then flew into Tokyo and made a last-minute pitch to SoftBank, but a deal wasn’t reached.
“It came down to Masa having a strong belief that he should apply the same investment principle, which means, give a company the opportunity to continue to grow before selling it or before giving away control,” Claure said.
SoftBank also felt confident with Sprint’s future as a standalone company and its “transformation,” as Claure described. He noted that over the past few years, Sprint has turned around both its customer growth numbers, as well as its balance sheet.
“If you look at the trajectory of the business and where we intend to take the business over the next three to five years, and you compare that against doing a tie-up with a company that you would be relinquishing control to, and you take into account regulatory approval — we figured out that going at it alone was part of a bigger strategic play,” Claure said.
A combined company of T-Mobile and Sprint would top 130 million subscribers with a market capitalization of nearly $90 billion. Reuters reported last week that the Department of Justice likely opposed the deal.
Sprint shares fell more than 13 percent after the merger was called off. The company has since inked a deal with U.S. cable operator Altice USA.
T-Mobile said the deal didn’t work out because it didn’t meet the company’s “high bar.”
“This time around, we could not find an arrangement that meets our high bar — and there’s no need to settle for anything less,” T-Mobile CEO John Legere wrote in an email to employees obtained by GeekWire.
Since the initial round of merger discussions, T-Mobile has surged under Legere, passing Sprint in 2015 to become the third largest U.S. wireless carrier.
T-Mobile last month said it added another 1.3 million new customers in the third quarter, its 18th straight period with more than 1 million net customer additions, bringing its total to more 70 million customers. Revenue at the company climbed 8 percent to $10 billion; profits rose 50 percent to $550 million.
Sprint meanwhile has struggled in past years; it posted a quarterly profit in August for the first time in three years but fell back into losses for the most recent quarter. Claure said Wednesday that Sprint plans to accelerate its investment in network infrastructure build-out.
Legere and Claure have developed a rivalry over the past few years, with the two chief executives lobbing insults back and forth as the companies jockeyed to be the main challenger to AT&T and Verizon.
But now it appears Claure is turning his attention toward Verizon and AT&T.