From his Brightstar Corp. headquarters in northwest Miami-Dade, Marcelo Claure speaks with confidence and passion on a range of topics, from his global wireless company that’s enjoying supercharged growth, to his family, with whom he can often be seen courtside at Miami Heat games.
But it’s when he brings up soccer that Claure, a 6-foot-6 Bolivian-raised, U.S.-educated, self-made billionaire, unleashes a smile that fills his boardroom.
“That’s something that I’ve really wanted to do for a very long time, bring soccer to Miami,” he said. “I think we’re getting closer. There’s a very good possibility that there will be soccer in Miami in 2017.”
Claure, along with retired English footballer David Beckham and longtime Beckham business partner and former Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller, is part of an investment group leading the charge to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Miami. The group recently discussed a list of at least six potential stadium sites with county officials.
While the soccer deal is far from done, the wireless business that Claure, 43, founded in 1997 is on a tear with new acquisitions and infusions of cash. In the past six months, Brightstar:
• Reported $10.6 billion in gross revenue for 2013, a company record.
• Received $1.26 billion from Sprint owner SoftBank in exchange for a majority stake of the company, 57 percent to Claure’s 43 percent.
• Acquired 20:20 Mobile, Europe’s largest wireless device distributor, and SBB, Japan’s largest wireless device distributor. The two deals combined should add more than $4.5 billion to Brightstar’s annual revenues.
• Opened six Miami-Dade and Broward locations, including a Hialeah flagship store, of Viva Móvil by Jennifer Lopez, the entertainer’s retail wireless business targeted for U.S. Hispanics.
Also, Claure recently accepted an appointment to Sprint’s board of directors in Chicago (he travels for business, mostly international, about 200 days a year), he just rebranded his company with a new, sun-orange logo, and did he mention the Beckham thing?
“Sleeping less and working more,” he said of his growth strategy, double espresso in hand. “It’s been busy.”
BUSINESS TO DOUBLE?
Claure knows he’ll need more than caffeine and a strong work ethic to take his company to the next level: He projects Brightstar will grow to $20 billion in gross revenues this year, and to $30 billion in 2015.
“This is business that is already booked, so it is up to us to execute it,” he said. “It took us 16 years to get to $10 billion, and it’s going to take us one year to double that. Executing at that level requires a different set of people, different set of skills, different set of processes.”
Profitable since day one, Brightstar got its start by distributing cellphones throughout Latin America from manufacturers like Motorola. As Claure built Brightstar’s roster of hardware clients, which include Apple, BlackBerry, Nokia and Samsung, he expanded the company’s presence to the United States and Canada, then Africa and Asia, and recently the Middle East and Europe. The company today has locations in 55 countries and customers in 125 countries.
Much of Brightstar’s already-booked business that Claure referred to will be fueled by the company’s non-distribution side. Providing services like wireless-device insurance plans and financing options for consumers is a major part of Brightstar’s continued growth and profitability.
Brightstar’s main challenge going forward will be increasing revenues on the wireless services it provides while continuing to squeeze the most profits it can from its core distribution business. The company’s global mobile-device distribution network accounts for 90 percent of Brightstar’s revenue but only 50 percent of its profit, Claure said; the services side represents 10 percent of Brightstar’s revenue and the other half of its profit.
Distribution and services “are like two independent businesses I have to grow,” he said.
The October deal with Japan’s SoftBank Corp. vastly expands Brightstar’s services business, which it now provides to Sprint and SoftBank’s other companies.
“We immediately become the exclusive buyer of all the phones that both Sprint and SoftBank buy,” Claure said. “And we become the premier provider of all of our phones and services to what is, combined, the third-largest wireless company in the world.
“It’s pretty neat when your largest shareholder will also become your customer,” he added. “The transaction with SoftBank should accelerate our growth in the service space tremendously, exponentially.”
A particular area of Brightstar’s expected growth is in cellphone buy-backs and trade-ins, when it purchases, refurbishes and resells used tablets, smartphones and other handheld-devices. Two years ago, as Brightstar was just getting into that side of the business, it purchased 80 million phones. This year, Claure said the number will jump to 140 million, which includes both new and used devices. (About 11 million handsets moved through Brightstar’s warehouse in northwest Miami-Dade last year.)
SoftBank valued Brightstar at $2.2 billion in the deal, which allows the Internet telecommunications giant to build its ownership stake from 57 to 70 percent over the next five years.
It is the first time that Claure is not Brightstar’s majority shareholder. He maintained a primary stake even after a $283 million investment from a New York private equity firm in 2007.
Brightstar filed and then withdrew plans to take the company public in 2004, and did so again in 2012. The SoftBank deal has tabled any discussion of that subject for now, Claure said.
“Selling 57 percent of your company is like going public,” he said.
Analysts mostly praised the deal, with Moody’s upgrading its Brightstar rating based on the acquisition by SoftBank.
“The capital contribution from SoftBank improves Brightstar’s near-term liquidity, which will aid the company’s strategy to broaden its product and services portfolio beyond mobile distribution,” Gerald Granovsky and Robert Jankowitz wrote in a February report. “Brightstar has significant scale and presence as a global services company... Moody’s expects Brightstar to pick up distribution and diversified services from SoftBank’s portfolio companies and other telecom operators in the United States and around the world.”
Some analysts questioned whether the deal could negatively affect Brightstar’s customer relationships with Sprint rivals Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, as reported by Reuters, but Claure said it will only boost his company’s reach and bottom line.
Meanwhile, Brightstar’s new acquisitions of 20:20 Mobile and SBB assure continued growth on the distribution side, making it the biggest distributor in Europe and Japan, respectively. The acquisitions also increased Brightstar’s employee roster almost overnight from 5,000 to more than 7,500.
Brightstar has relationships with major retailers from Best Buy and CVS to Walgreens and Walmart, and it’s currently branching out further into the retail world. Brightstar has partnered with J.Lo and her Viva Móvil brand of smartphones and tablets on the Verizon network.
Viva Móvil opened its first store in New York last year and has added about two dozen more in that city, Miami and Los Angeles. Lopez and Claure are pals; she and then-hubby Marc Anthony performed at Claure’s 40th birthday party in Las Vegas in 2010. And Claure traces his friendship with Beckham to a party at Lopez’s house; the two men talked soccer.
But play comes after work, Claure said. Because of Brightstar’s global reach, he is usually on the phone with colleagues in Asia or Australia by 6 a.m., following a 5 a.m. workout. He ends his workdays talking with contacts in California.
In between, Claure said, it’s a balancing act between grasping at opportunities like the ones he sees with wireless services in the Middle East and Africa (“They are experiencing what Latin America saw a few years back,” he said) and managing market crises.
“We’ve had to watch closely what’s happening in Venezuela,” he said. “We sell a lot to the Venezuelan government. I want to be sure that we collect our money.”
After work, he said, it’s usually dinner out with customers or colleagues — he cites Zuma, Casa Tua and Cipriani as favorites — or a Heat game with family or a business or philanthropy event. Claure co-founded the charitable One Laptop Per Child project in 2005. This month, he received a special recognition award during BritWeek in Miami, the only non-Brit to be honored.
“Marcelo has so many achievements, but I think one of the most telling is this: At the World Economic Forum this year, he was one of the few business leaders who David Cameron, my prime minister, sought out for a meeting to gain his views on the global economy,” said Kevin McGurgan, the U.K.’s consul general in Miami.
“Brightstar’s purchase of 20:20 Mobile in the U.K. is an obvious connection between Marcelo and the British economy,” McGurgan continued. “But for me, I think the biggest link, perhaps, is his relationship and partnership with David Beckham. That really says something quite special about Miami’s future in general and about Marcelo in particular. A Brit wants to make a longterm impact here, and Marcelo is the person he chose to do that with.”
The soccer deal still has hurdles to jump. Royal Caribbean Cruises this month made public its opposition to a possible soccer stadium near its headquarters at PortMiami. The day that Claure sat for an interview with Business Monday, his name appeared in a New York Post Page Six gossip column that speculated whether LeBron James might be a co-investor in the project.
Claure said getting caught up in the paparazzi-style Beckham coverage doesn’t bother him.
“One good thing about partnering with David Beckham is that everyone knows him in this city, so we get faster restaurant reservations,” Claure joked.
“He always said, ‘There is going to be a day when I want to buy a franchise, and I want you to be my partner,’ ” Claure said. “Now that he retired and he has the right to buy a franchise, he called me up and said, ‘Hey, I’ve never been to Miami.’
“So he came to Miami, and we hung out for a little while,” Claure said of Beckham’s visit last May and June when the pair took in Heat playoff games and dined at British import Zuma and South Beach’s Catch. “We got to know each other, we like each other, and we decided to be partners.”
This is Claure’s second attempt to back an MLS team to Miami. He partnered in 2008 with FC Barcelona in a $40 million bid, but the effort fizzled in 2009, with Claure saying the timing and economics of the deal weren’t right.
It was “a bit awkward,” he told the Herald at the time, having to lay off Brightstar employees during the economic downturn while at the same time bidding for a soccer team. “Now I can focus on my business.”
Tom Mulroy, a retired American soccer pro and longtime South Florida promoter of the sport, had said Claure was “the right guy” to bring MLS to Miami (the Miami Fusion competed in Fort Lauderdale from 1998-2001).
“Marcelo wanted to do it for the right reasons, and was in the financial situation to do it, but now is a tough time to start any business,” Mulroy said at the time.
Claure has proven himself a capable club owner. He bought his native country’s Bolívar team in 2008; the club has won several league titles since then and is the most-winning team in Bolivia.
“We’re not doing as good as always. We’re having a tougher year this year,” he said, a broad smile re-emerging. “But we’ll be better.”