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Alumni Profile: Robert Dotson '89

Well connected
Kellogg School alum Robert Dotson '89 demonstrates the passion and mobility to compete in the challenging wireless arena

Robert P. Dotson is a wireless industry leader who knows how to answer a higher calling.

When he was 19 years old, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tapped the Utah native to lead up to 40 other young Mormon missionaries in northern Germany.

"You're not paid for the service. You can't fire people," says Dotson, 43, chief executive officer and president since March 2003. "How could I motivate, uplift and inspire people? It was a key learning in my life."

The missionaries had to be aggressive, knocking on doors and stopping passersby to talk. They worked 6 1/2 days a week, suffering bitter North Sea winds in winter, and sweltering summer days dressed in suits and ties.

"It clearly stripped down some of my own bashfulness," says Dotson, who graduated in 1989 with an MBA in marketing and finance from the Kellogg School. "And it also involved some level of confrontation."

But what Dotson recalls most about those years (1980-82) is the quaint villages that dotted the countryside. Those days, he says, "were always filled with some of my favorite people --- die Bauern (the farmers). So different from being in Berlin and Hamburg."

Today, Dotson's calling is different, but his passion and sense of mission remain much the same. His central message about T-Mobile is: "We're not a tech company at all. We're a service industry."

That explains the "Get more from life" advertising campaign, which Dotson started when he was in charge of marketing at VoiceStream Wireless, T-Mobile's predecessor. He personally chose actress Jamie Lee Curtis as spokeswoman.

"Get more" is also the same customer-driven commitment --- and passion --- that Dotson preaches to more than 23,000 employees to better serve more than 13 million T-Mobile subscribers, an increase of 32 percent from last year.

Dotson says he initially selected Curtis because "she embodied the attributes I felt were important to the development of the VoiceStream brand. She is confident, alluring, edgy and lives the mobile life."

Curtis was a perfect fit for a "challenger brand," he says, because "she had also done very little in the way of product endorsements."

Dotson's marketing savvy was tested when Deutsch Telekom purchased VoiceStream three years ago, and he was named T-Mobile's chief operating officer. (Such is Dotson's career trajectory that even his fluency in German was a plus.) Dotson was faced with introducing a new company name and spokeswoman, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones.

At a breakfast at Lil' John's diner in Bellevue, Wash., --- the Seattle suburb where T-mobile is based --- Dotson met with friend and adviser, Robert H. Bloom, now retired chairman and CEO of the U.S. division of Publicis.

Sitting among laborers and truckdrivers, they talked while demolishing plates of pancakes, eggs and sausages. Dotson then decided the changes would occur without any transitional advertising.

"Yesterday it was VoiceStream," Dotson told Bloom, "and today it's T-Mobile." Bloom adds, "It was the most brilliant decision I've ever seen."

Bloom says besides being "very, very smart," Dotson has a "very strong marketing discipline," as seen in the Curtis to Zeta-Jones succession. In addition, says Bloom, "Robert is one of the most intuitive marketers I've ever met."

Brian Kirkpatrrick, T-Mobile executive vice president and chief financial officer, knows the Dotson style well. "He's open, he's direct and he's very effective in any situation÷. He's able to form a vision and articulate it. He builds trust among the people he works with."

Dotson was raised in Ogden, Utah, where his parents, Phil and Marie, taught school. His father, now deceased, also was an entrepreneur and professional nature photographer.

Dotson spent summers traveling and helping his father, and his hobbies today reflect the outdoor life: fly-fishing for trout in the western states, Alaska and New Zealand, and bow hunting for Rocky Mountain elk. He also plays the acoustic guitar, collects "old" cell phones and enjoys attending his twin 14-year-old daughters' basketball games.

He and his wife Kelli, who live in Bellevue, also have three sons, ages 20, 17 and four.

Dotson earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Weber State University in Ogden. He credits the Kellogg School with demonstrating "the collective power of honest, introspective challenging of commonly held beliefs and traditions to get to uncommon, innovative results. As one Kellogg professor put it, Žcommon sense ain't so common.'"

After Kellogg, Dotson joined PepsiCo Inc., where he was responsible for marketing the two-in-one stores (KFC and Taco Bell), among other things. In 1996, wanting a new challenge in a bigger growth industry, he joined Western Wireless, a regional company that later became VoiceStream.

In February, T-Mobile announced it had moved from sixth to fifth place in subscribers. That's ahead of Nextel in the highly competitive wireless industry, which recently saw Cingular Wireless purchase AT&T Wireless Services Inc., for $41 billion.

The merger hardly intimidates Dotson, who says: "What is often overlooked is that T-Mobile International is the third largest wireless carrier in the world. As such, T-Mobile USA is able to leverage the full resources of a global carrier, resulting in industry-leading cost structures and compelling, differentiated devices and services." He is referring to innovations such as T-Mobile HotSpots and Sidekick, a popular phone/email/PDA hybrid.

With a battle-tested management team, Dotson is ready for the challenge.

"We're absolutely the aggressor in the marketplace," he says.

--- Daniel Cattau

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University