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Sunday, August 5, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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John Stanton is wizard of the wireless world

Seattle Times technology reporter

The career of the man who brought the world VoiceStream Wireless has been all about a skinny rectangular box with a little rubber keypad and an antenna poking out the end.

But it's a wooden bat and a white leather ball laced with red stitching that says the most about John Stanton's personal life. He charters planes to get back in time to coach his children's baseball games. He bought a stake in the Seattle Mariners so his family could go to spring training together. His favorite movie is "Field of Dreams."

He calls running two wireless companies the "second-best job in Seattle, if you can't play center field for the Mariners."

Perhaps one of the best things that happened to John Stanton was that he didn't make his high-school baseball team. Because in the wireless industry, he's a titan.

Over the past year, the Bellevue native has emerged as one of the most prominent figures in the local business community and the global wireless arena.

Since 1982, when he filed the first government applications on behalf of Craig McCaw's cellular-telephone venture, Stanton has made one successful move after another, culminating with the recent sale of Bellevue-based VoiceStream to the German company Deutsche Telekom.

And although he's still running VoiceStream and a second company, Western Wireless, also based in Bellevue, there's talk that he may be headed for bigger arenas, perhaps politics.

"I've probably served on 15 corporate boards over the years in a variety of companies, from start-ups to companies like Burlington Northern and Washington Mutual, and I would rank John as the most perceptive, intelligent and knowledgeable business person I've run across," says former Gov. Dan Evans.

Most would call the $30 billion VoiceStream sale the deal of a lifetime. The closing of the merger at the end of May was the culmination of a year spent negotiating with federal regulators to approve the sale.

He rewarded himself with a family vacation in Europe after the merger closed, but even that was a mix of play and work — to check on Western Wireless' international operations.

If they made a movie, Robert Redford might play the 45-year-old Stanton. His 6-foot-4 frame may be intimidating, but the crinkles around his eyes betray an easy smile.

At a recent interview in his office cluttered with his two children's drawings, stuffed animals and piles of reports, he talks about the time he blew his college student-body's budget or why he likes baseball as easily as he discusses global deal-making.

"In `Field of Dreams' and the penultimate scene, where James Earl Jones gives the soliloquy on how America is rolling by like steam engines and baseball, (it's) a metaphor for stability in troubled times," he says.

He communicates in movie analogies.

"I still remember the moment vividly," he says about winning the first Seattle cellular license at McCaw. "It was literally like the movie `The Candidate,' where Robert Redford turns and says, `Well, what do we do now?' after winning the campaign."

Lurking beneath that aw-shucks veneer, though, is one of the most intensely focused individuals in the wireless industry. To prepare for cellular-license negotiations, he memorized the population of the top 90 U.S. markets so he could calculate, on the fly, the price of each market. He rounds off to six decimal points in his head.

While that intensity can also make him ill-tempered and irritable, his ability to focus totally on the task at hand is part of his charm. He woos Wall Street analysts during conference calls by memorizing their hometowns.

Bob Ratliffe, a former vice president at McCaw Cellular Communications, said he once mentioned to Stanton at a group breakfast that his son might have juvenile diabetes.

"He e-mailed me three or four times: `How's Joe?' `What are the doctors saying?' He stayed on it," Ratliffe says. "There were three other guys at the table, one of whom I was actually closer to. They didn't e-mail me. John stays on it."

Although his work takes him to Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland and the halls of Congress, Stanton's a hometown boy, born and raised in Bellevue. His father was an engineer at Boeing.

After his father was diagnosed with cancer, his mother went to school and became a speech pathologist. Many of Stanton's friends attribute his character to his upbringing — and forming the kind of confidence that can lead to success where, without it, the result would be failure.

"Some of that comes from a stable childhood, some of that comes from loving parents, some of that comes from being an only child," says Mikal Thomsen, Western Wireless' president and chief operating officer.

"Sometimes people say only children don't play well with others. There's some of that in John, but he recognizes that and works very hard to overcome that."

After graduating from Newport High School, Stanton went to Whitman College in Walla Walla. Within weeks of arriving on campus, he ran for student-body vice president and lost by a narrow margin. He dusted himself off and ran for president at the end of the year. That time he won, with twice the votes of his opponent.

"He likes to run things," says Don Guthrie, chief financial officer of VoiceStream.

Six weeks into his term, Stanton lost $12,000 bringing jazz saxophonist Stanley Turrentine to campus for a concert. The college bailed out the student body, and Stanton spent the year raising money to recover the cost.

He grew his hair to shoulder length, argued on the debate team and majored in political science, writing a senior thesis that critiqued decisions the college administration had made. Academically, he did fine, though not well enough to get into Harvard Business School by his grades alone.

"It was in organizational, social relationships rather than (academics) that John distinguished himself," says Robert Skotheim, who, despite the concert fiasco, calls Stanton the best student-body president he worked with in his 13 years as Whitman's president.

"He was so outstanding in that respect, it more than compensated his not spending more time studying."

During the second semester of his first year, Stanton's father died. You get a sense of their relationship when you ask him why he loves "Field of Dreams." "It's a story of father and son wrapped around baseball," he says.

When he graduated from Harvard in 1979, Stanton went to Tacoma to work at Ernst & Whinney, now known as Ernst & Young, specializing in telecom consulting. One day in 1980 a government docket came out proposing a set of rules for how to create a mobile-telecom business. Nobody else wanted to deal with it, so Stanton picked it up and became responsible for drumming up mobile-telecom clients.

One of those clients was Craig McCaw, whose company at the time was involved in cable television. In 1982, the government changed the rules for awarding cellular licenses, which opened up an opportunity for McCaw to get into the wireless business.

The company hired Stanton as a consultant, then full time. His role under McCaw's hands-off management style was to go after those licenses. During one three-month stretch, he worked 16-hour days without any off.

When the government was debating whether to use a lottery to award a second round of licenses, Stanton, then 29, organized most of the 100 license winners to negotiate trades and mergers. During those talks Stanton worked without sleep for so long in smoke-filled rooms that his contacts laminated to his eyes. He was taken to the emergency room and came back to the negotiations wearing eyepatches.

"He can be intense like you can't believe," says Peter Van Oppen, chief executive officer of Advanced Digital Information Corp., a Redmond data-storage company, who is also a Western Wireless director and a Whitman classmate.

They come as a team

It was at McCaw that Stanton met his wife, Terry Gillespie, the company's controller. Van Oppen calls them "the most high-powered team in Seattle."

"John isn't John. John is John and Terry," he says. "Everybody with John's abilities needs some-body to keep him honest and humble. She tends to be very grounded in realism."

Wayne Perry, a former president of McCaw, puts it more bluntly: "Terry runs that guy."

The two went on a yearlong sabbatical from McCaw after they got married in 1987, taking off to Colorado to ski and figure out what to do with their lives.

On a whim, he bought into the Northwest franchise of Blue Chip Cookies. It failed disastrously, and he ended up selling it to the franchiser. His friends from McCaw still call him "Cookie Monster."

"He didn't pay any attention to it," says Perry. "It was clear he was going to spend two seconds per decade on the cookie thing."

When the two came back from Colorado, Stanton went back to McCaw but stepped away from day-to-day operations in 1990.

The couple started buying rural wireless licenses on the cheap, eventually building the largest rural and small-market wireless carrier, Western Wireless. His wife is still the executive vice president of finance there. When the government started auctioning off digital-airwave licenses, Stanton bought them, spinning that business into VoiceStream.

VoiceStream brought Stanton to global prominence. It was small but it quickly grew into a national wireless carrier, and its acquisition by Deutsche Telekom attracted international attention.

But many say that it's the executive team at VoiceStream, as well as at Western Wireless, that has been crucial to Stanton's success.

"He's got enormous loyalty from people around him," says former Gov. Evans, who serves on Western Wireless' board and is a former McCaw director.

Most of Stanton's senior executives have known him for more than 10 years, and he relies on them to take care of operations. Stanton's strength is thinking about such issues as long-term vision and relationships.

Executives who have worked with him most closely say that when Stanton gets impatient, he gets cranky. "As John gets tired, impatience will sometimes pop through," says Guthrie, VoiceStream's chief financial officer.

"There have been colorful speeches John's delivered to some unfortunate airline employees. It's not expletives, but it usually involves a fairly precise description of how they could do their job better."

For the most part, though, Stanton doesn't take himself too seriously. His executives are comfortable saying to his face, "John, that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

Lunch at the bowling alley

The low quotient of pretension extends to his personal life. To be sure, based on his stock holdings in Western Wireless and VoiceStream, Stanton and his wife are worth about $1.2 billion. But he's not billionaire-extravagant.

His BMW is only his third car in 15 years. He wears old clothes to the office. When Van Oppen and Stanton have lunch, Stanton invariably orders a patty melt at the Sun Villa Lanes bowling alley in Bellevue where he went as a kid.

"A hamburger, fries and a very nice bottle of wine. That's John's ideal meal," says Guthrie.

For someone who lost his father at a young age, Stanton takes family time extremely seriously. The last movie he saw in a theater was "Pokémon: The Movie 2000." The one before that was "Pokémon: The First Movie."

"Forget about scheduling a meeting with John before 9 a.m.," Guthrie says. "He has to drive his kids to school."

A political future?

His family is also the biggest factor in deciding what his next step will be. Rumors have swirled about political aspirations and the possibility of running for governor.

Since college, he's taken more than a passing interest in politics. In 1980, he co-chaired John Anderson's presidential campaign in Pierce County and has worked on several campaigns. Last summer he chaired a fund-raising event for George W. Bush. He's one of the top 10 fund-raisers for the Republican Party in the state.

"He would make one whale of a good political leader," says Evans. "He's smart, he has very good people relationships, he's able to excite people, and he's able to express ideas in a way people understand."

Stanton would have to lift the iron curtain around his private life if he is serious about pursuing a life of public service. His wife and mother both declined to be interviewed for this story, and he declined to be photographed unless he could retain control of the photo. He also wanted to keep his children's ages and sexes out of the paper, citing safety concerns.

He says he won't make any moves unless his family is ready. "I love politics. I love government. But I love my family more," he says. "I would think about doing something — I don't know, dogcatcher maybe — something less exalted when the kids are older."

One thing's for certain. "This state has not heard the last of John Stanton," says former McCaw vice president Ratliffe.

For now, no matter what ambitions he harbors, Stanton still has Western Wireless to run and VoiceStream to shepherd through its German assimilation. Center field at Safeco is probably out of the question.

Sharon Pian Chan can be reached at 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com.

FACTS

About Stanton

Favorite book: "Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis"

by Graham Allison.

Currently reading: a spy novel by Robert Ludlum and "Maestro: Greenspan's Fed and the American Boom" by Bob Woodward.

Boards he sits on: Columbia Sportswear, Advanced Digital Information Corp., Whitman College and the Pacific Science Center. He is former chairman of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

High-school activities: member of the debate club and tennis team.

Summer job in college: assistant foreman at a frozen-food processor.

Business-school jobs: making breakfast and tending bar, holding a summer internship with the K2 company.

Sports teams he owns a stake in: Mariners, Sonics.

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