John Dwyer
Photograph by Chris Strong

This is Working for Me: John Dwyer, ’94

The Cricket Wireless president explains how a start-up mind-set helped him navigate a nascent industry—and what shucking oysters has to do with leading a team.

In his first year as president of AT&T subsidiary Cricket Wireless, John Dwyer, ’94, has grown its prepaid wireless business in a market clogged with competitors. In the third quarter of 2016, AT&T reported 304,000 prepaid customer additions and 20 percent year-over-year revenue growth driven by momentum at Cricket. Dwyer has been in the wireless—and wired—phone industry since 1993 and credits a course he took at Booth with opening his eyes to the dazzling challenges in new ventures. Joining the wireless industry in its infancy made him a start-up guy in a giant corporation, and always an advocate for clarity: What’s the plan? Who’s accountable? Chicago born and raised, he calls Atlanta home, where he lives with his wife and two children and a rescue mutt, Lucky.

In 1995, I was the 35th employee at PacTel’s wireless business. I started in marketing, followed by roles in supply chain, sales, and customer service. As the vice president of customer service, I led a team of 1,000 call-center employees working in a former Air Force base. This was a rural area where we recruited people face to face at farmers’ markets. We were the largest employer in the county, but we were taking people who came from factory and agriculture jobs. They were not accustomed to sitting eight hours or spending all day listening to calls. We really needed to take a different approach to hiring and developing our employees.

It was a turning point in my career. I was uncomfortable. I had no experience running a call center, and I had employees with zero experience. I thought back to my business-school days, to the words of [former dean and Steven G. Rothmeier Professor and Distinguished Service Professor of Economics] John P. “Jack” Gould: “What problem are we trying to solve? What’s the framework?” I jumped on Amazon and found three books on call centers. My key learning? Take the time to make employees emotionally connected to their work. A call center is all about people, their emotions and beliefs, and their buy-in.

A focus on people is about employees, but more than that, it is about customers. With the launch of the iPhone, we had tremendous revenue growth in our mobility business, but my CEO was frustrated that we were in last place in a J. D. Power survey on customer satisfaction. So, he asked me to start an organization to transform our customer experience. We set out to see our service through customers’ eyes, not ours. We had a team pulling apart customers’ journeys in order to identify and resolve pain points. Within three years, AT&T placed first in that survey, and in 2016 AT&T won that award for the seventh time in a row.

At Cricket, I am tasked to grow the business. Traditionally, the prepaid category had been a “less than” experience for customers; carriers didn’t feel obligated to provide good service. We’re changing that. We opened AT&T’s network to Cricket customers with $30- to $70-per-month, simple-rate plans. We set high expectations for every interaction with a customer—we strive to be caring, respectful, and thoughtful. It’s a relationship that has to be based on more than just price.

I’m not sure anyone really understood exactly how much the cellular industry would transform how we all live and work.

John Dwyer

At Booth I took the New Venture Strategy course. Taught by [clinical professor of entrepreneurship and strategic management] James E. Schrager, that course fed my desire to get in on the ground floor of a growth industry, which led to an internship after my first year at Booth in the wireless industry. I started in marketing at Sprint Cellular in 1993. Wireless at the time was immature, but you could see the potential. Frankly, though, I’m not sure anyone really understood exactly how much the cellular industry would transform how we all live and work.

My first job was at a seafood restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, where I grew up. I washed dishes and shucked oysters before there were Kevlar gloves. I worked as a YMCA camp counselor, and in college I cofounded a custom T-shirt company. Those early jobs were people jobs. As you advance in a career, it’s easy to become removed, and to manage a business by looking at income statements and operational reports. I know you can’t run a business that way. The customers and the front-line employees need to be at the center of every decision.

I ran my first marathon last year. My father died of a heart attack when I was 13. I’m the age he was when he died, and that has been very much on my mind. I’ve been conscious in trying to prevent what happened to him from happening to me. I started running to get in shape, but I wasn’t thinking I’d run a marathon. I like the challenge, and the feeling you get from pushing yourself. I’m not a natural: when I was growing up playing Pony League baseball my nickname was Lightning Dwyer, which I got for my lack of speed.

I love to travel. Recently I went to Shanghai; Seoul, South Korea; Honduras; and El Salvador, for work. It can be exhausting, but I’ve learned to be thoughtful, and to carve out time to sleep, exercise, and eat well. (My mother, a civil engineer, modeled work-life balance to me.) There’s nothing better than a six-mile run in a new city to get a feel for the place. Whether I’m in San Diego or Boston, if it’s a beautiful morning, a run is the best way to start the day.

To unwind, I sit and allow myself to do nothing. I spend a day decompressing. I watch golf, or I take Lucky for a walk. That’s when I get my best ideas, in moments of quiet and reflection. I get an idea, I spin it, flesh it out, think it through, and problem solve. I come back to work refreshed and ready. 

—As told to Anne Moore