You can spin the replacement of former Clearwire CEO Ben Wolff any way you want — the Clearwire press release says “Clearwire Expands Executive Leadership Team” — but when you bump your top guy out of the chair, unless it’s for someone who hits home runs like a Steve Jobs or a Manny Ramirez, there’s a reason why, and it usually relates to something not going quite the way it should.
It may be true that incoming CEO William Morrow, a 49-year-old Vodafone veteran, has a resume dipped much deeper in telecom experience than that of the outgoing 40-year-old Wolff, and that type of experience is needed now that Clearwire is out of its merger activities and into market-launching blocking and tackling. Clearwire board member Peter Currie, in a phone interview Monday, said that while Wolff was by background a lawyer “and one of the best deal guys in telecom,” Wolff himself realized that Clearwire needed more leadership — and that the “only way to get someone of [Morrow’s] caliber was to make him CEO” — so according to Currie, Wolff willingly gave up the title to become “co-chairman” (which is a title of dubious power when the other co-chair is a guy named Craig McCaw).
But that’s spin. The reality is, nobody (usually) gives up the CEO chair willingly, and given the massive write-downs taken by Clearwire partners lately, there was probably not a lot of resistance at the board level to a decision to make a change at the top.
While Wolff can’t be blamed for the tanking of the market over the past year, Clearwire by many accounts has probably moved more slowly than it needed to in terms of market expansion and launches, the kinds of things that might have kept its stock from diving into the $3-$4 range it has been in lately.
So maybe for the company, it’s a good thing that someone with Morrow’s background has decided to throw in with team WiMax. But as we’ve said all along, Clearwire has a window of opportunity to beat other 4G competitors to the market; but that window won’t stay open forever. Bringing in a new CEO at this stage of the game means many things that are uncertain, but one that you can bet on: More operational delays as the new boss gets up to speed. As the Verizon LTE train behind you picks up speed, stopping to take on a new conductor is a calculated risk.
UPDATE: Stacey H over at GigaOM has some more background on Morrow and his skills as a turnaround artist.