He’s received a lot of awards over his career. As he prepares to retire this year after 10 years at U.S. Cellular, he can rest assured that he’s leaving his mark.
When he was about 28 years old, John E. (Jack) Rooney was hired in his first leadership role at Pullman Inc. He walked into a room full of guys, none of them under 40. He went home and tossed and turned that night, unable to sleep. Finally, as he was trying to figure it all out, he realized he was scared – it was the first time in his life that his success wasn’t based on his own performance but that of hundreds of other people.
To Rooney, leadership is not something you inherit but a privilege. It’s not about personal success but motivating the workforce. “You get the chance to help other people be successful,” he says.
He’s had that opportunity in the wireless industry, first at Ameritech, where he worked for nine years and oversaw the cellular unit’s growth from $450 million in annual revenue to $2.5 billion. U.S. Cellular, from which he will retire this year after a 10-year stint as CEO, has grown into the sixth largest wireless provider in the country, with service revenues more than doubling. U.S. Cellular and Rooney’s journey there is the subject of an entire book, “The Pursuit of Something Better,” by Dave Esler and Myra Kruger..
While customers have been at the center of his management philosophy over the years, customers were not a priority at the time he started at Ameritech. When he heard about the churn rate, he thought the number sounded pretty good – for a yearly rate. When informed that the number referred to customers leaving on a monthly basis, it didn’t look so good.
“I came out of the tire business, which was a chuckle to all of these guys in wireless … Tires and customer service for us were like gold. You love them and try to build loyalty,” he says.
After Ameritech was acquired by SBC, Rooney was almost walking out the door, ready to look for something better, when he got a call from John Stupka, who was a former competitor while at SBC who went on to lead MTEL. He knew of a job and asked if Rooney would be interested in going to U.S. Cellular, which is owned by Telephone & Data Systems (TDS).
It was at Ameritech where he started building what he calls the “Dynamic Organization,” a model that he has deployed at U.S. Cellular that effectively tries to get employees focused on the customer. One of the ways to do that, in addition to training, is to treat the some 8,000+ associates well. Rooney doesn’t call the people who work at U.S. Cellular his “employees;” rather, they’re “associates” and he treats them more akin to colleagues than employees working for him.
He has an in box, called Listen Jack, where associates can write to him and he will either answer them or seek out the answers. Every email gets answered, including the good, the bad and the ugly. Associates greet him with cheers when he enters a room, more like a rock star than a grandfather to nine.
More than 90 percent of associates participated in U.S. Cellular’s 2009 annual Culture Survey, which is voluntary. Ninety-six percent agreed they were well trained to do their jobs, and 98 percent agreed their overall opinion of U.S. Cellular was positive. A similar number said they were proud of what the company was accomplishing, and 95 percent voiced confidence in senior leadership.
HOME IN CHICAGO
One of the key assets that U.S. Cellular acquired from PrimeCo was the Chicago market. For a long time, U.S. Cellular didn’t offer service in the market where its headquarters are located. The company later went on to put its name on the Chicago White Sox stadium – a dream come true for someone like Rooney who grew up on the south side of Chicago. For a number of years, U.S. Cellular tapped local Chicago actress Joan Cusack as its spokeswoman in its advertising.
Part of Rooney’s business philosophy is to have an ethical workforce with established values and behaviors. “We run a very ethical company here,” he says. “One of the nice things is I can go home at night and look at myself ¨C I might be appalled at the way I look but I don’t feel guilty. We have a strong sense of ethics ¡ and we work together as a team. A company our size has to perform better than anyone else in the industry.”
The company has worked hard to attract and keep customers amid the noise from larger competitors. Last year, the company introduced its free Battery Swap program that allows customers with dead or dying batteries to go into any U.S. Cellular location and swap them out for fully charged ones. U.S. Cellular also launched its free Overage Protection program that sends text alerts to customers before they reach their voice and texting limits and again when they’ve topped out for the month.
The carrier now has 75 percent of its POPs covered with EV-DO, and that should reach 95 percent by the end of the year. In January, U.S. Cellular unveiled new unlimited national calling plans, including a family plan with two lines for $119.99 a month.
In February, parent company TDS announced that Rooney will retire in 2010. The company hired an executive recruiting firm to search for Rooney’s replacement. He plans to stay until his replacement is found, which he hopes is soon.
Rooney, 67, won’t spend his retirement on the golf links or lying on the beach. He will continue as a director at the First Midwest Bank in Chicago, as well as his other community commitments and speaking engagements. No doubt, he’ll be asked numerous questions about his philosophy as chronicled in “The Pursuit of Something Better.” For Rooney, the journey just keeps getting better.