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Originally published Friday, July 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Western Wireless vote falls on key day

Western Wireless shareholders will vote today on whether to sell the wireless carrier to Alltel — exactly 11 years ago to the day...

Seattle Times technology reporter

Western Wireless shareholders will vote today on whether to sell the wireless carrier to Alltel — exactly 11 years ago to the day that the Bellevue company was founded.

"I absolutely believe in poetry," John Stanton, the founder and chief executive of Western Wireless, said recently when asked whether the vote was purposely timed with the anniversary.

This morning at the Museum of History & Industry, the shareholders are expected to approve selling the company to Alltel for about $4.4 billion in cash and stock.

If the vote passes, the merger will close either today or Monday. The sale of Western Wireless represents not only the end for the company, but a new chapter for the local wireless industry as a second carrier is sold to out-of-town ownership within the past year.

Together, Western Wireless and Little Rock, Ark.-based Alltel would become the fifth-largest carrier in the U.S. with about 10 million customers in 33 states. Executives from both companies were unavailable to comment.

Derek Kerton, an analyst of the Kerton Group, said the company would be bigger and stronger.

"It's tough to compete when you are an extremely small company," Kerton said. "[The merger] makes them the largest regional carrier in the country."

Alltel made the offer earlier this year after Cingular Wireless bought AT&T Wireless, kicking off a consolidation spree.

Wave of consolidation

The wave continued with Sprint and Nextel Communications announcing their intention to merge. That deal is expected to close later this year and most likely would include Kirkland-based sister company Nextel Partners, which would vote on whether to be bought by the combined company.

Stanton founded Western Wireless in 1988 with his wife, Theresa Gillespie. At the time, it was called Stanton Communications and had two employees in 1,100 square feet of office space in Kirkland, Stanton said.

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Six years later, on July 29, 1994, Western Wireless was born when Stanton joined Pacific Northwest Cellular and General Cellular.

The same year, Stanton started VoiceStream Wireless, which was spun off in 1999 to German telecom giant Deutsche Telekom for $30 billion. Called T-Mobile USA, it remains in Bellevue and is the fourth-largest U.S. carrier.

It's too early to say what impact the Alltel merger would have here.

Cingular Wireless largely kept AT&T Wireless' 5,700 employees (minus a few hundred).

In early discussions, Alltel indicated that it would also keep the Bellevue office and reduce the employee base of 4,000 — about 800 in Bellevue and Issaquah — by 10 percent.

About 1,500 employees run Western's international business, serving about 1.8 million subscribers in several countries. Western agreed to sell its Irish division this week and is reviewing offers for its Austrian network.

Changing climate

What's changing for sure is the climate in the Northwest, with far fewer wireless carriers being headquartered in the Puget Sound area.

However, Stanton said recently, he sees plenty of opportunities in the AT&T Wireless and Western Wireless deals.

"Engineers and business people and people with money who have grown up here have roots," Stanton said. "They'll stay here and do other things. We will continue to produce many new and important things."

Stanton, who lives a couple of miles from the house he grew up in, is among those people.

Western Wireless will be his second big success story. He and his wife are set to make more than half a billion dollars in cash and Alltel stock from the sale.

What will Stanton do next?

"I'm going to try and spend some time and figure that out," he said. "I'd love to be involved without creating conflicts with my role as an Alltel director."

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

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