Business

From ‘unknown’ to wealthiest Hispanic-American — and now, he’s moving back to Miami

Marcelo Claure, the Miami investor now overseeing Softbank Group as well as the Beckham soccer stadium proposal.
Marcelo Claure, the Miami investor now overseeing Softbank Group as well as the Beckham soccer stadium proposal. cmguerrero@miamiherald.com`

Ten years ago, the Miami Herald described Marcelo Claure as an “unknown” in his adopted Magic City hometown.

The Bolivian-American entrepreneur had already been living in Miami for more than a decade. He’d turned his company, Brightstar, into one of the largest cellphone distributors in the world, and what was said to be the largest Hispanic-owned firm in the U.S.

Yet his plan to bring a Major League Soccer team to Miami then was greeted with a shrug at best, and a sneer at worst; the sting of Miami’s first, failed attempt at MLS soccer, the Miami Fusion, was still fresh.

Claure was undeterred.

“I could never understand why a cosmopolitan city like Miami, with a bunch of Latin people who love the sport, never had a soccer team here,” he said one recent morning in his downtown office overlooking Biscayne Bay.

Former soccer star David Beckham announced that his new MLS team will be called Inter Miami, and he talks about what went into creating the team's logo.

Today, Claure may be on the verge of becoming a household name in South Florida as pro soccer edges closer to kickoff. For the past decade, he has run the gauntlet of city and county mayors, controversial stadium sites and changes in business partners to bring MLS to Miami. The latest proposal — with partners David Beckham, Simon Fuller and locals Jose and Jorge Mas — will be decided by Miami residents, who will vote in November on whether the city should waive competitive bidding to enable the for-profit group to develop 70 acres of public land now occupied by International Links Miami-Melreese Country Club.

For Claure, the quest is fueled by a winning streak of business successes.

“Marcelo wants to be king of the world,” said Clay Parker, a lawyer who has represented Brightstar and Claure for more than 20 years. “I think Marcelo views that everything is a stepping stone to somewhere else, [and his] view [is] if he works hard, he can accomplish it.”

After Japan’s SoftBank venture group purchased majority control of Brightstar in 2013, Claure was named CEO of Sprint, also controlled by SoftBank. Today, at 47, he chairs the wireless network and is piloting its $26 billion merger with T-Mobile. (Federal regulators have not yet approved the deal.)

Claure also serves as operations chief for SoftBank’s multibillion-dollar technology portfolio, which is considered to be the world’s largest. U.S. investments include Uber, WeWork, Slack and Fortress Investment Group (majority investor in South Florida rail company Brightline.) International investments include Yahoo Japan and Didi, an Uber-like service in China.

As recently as 2015, the Financial Times was reporting that Claure was the richest Hispanic person living in the U.S.

With the Sprint merger and Miami’s soccer franchise in the works, Claure has come back to the city he has called home for most of his adult life.

“This is where I spend most of my time,” he said. “My two older kids [out of six] live here. This is where Brightstar is. My family office is here. Miami is still very close to my heart.”

‘Star’ is born

Raúl Marcelo Claure was born on Dec. 9, 1970, in Guatemala. The son of a United Nations geologist from Bolivia, Claure grew up traveling the world. He usually attended local American schools, although he didn’t learn English until the ninth grade, according to the Kansas City Star.

His entrepreneurial spirit struck early; at the age of 10, he says, he would buy and sell his mother’s clothing outside their house. School was sometimes secondary; troublemaking, he told the Star, occasionally came first.

“I was the leader, always,” he said. “I could get away without studying and get good grades.”

Like his father, Claure attended college in the U.S. — in his case, at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. It wasn’t long before he opened up another business, this time, trading frequent-flyer points. Within a year, he had 25 people working for him.

Shortly after graduation, a chance meeting on an airplane with a Bolivian sports official led to a job with the Bolivian national soccer team as head of business operations. The team went on to qualify for the 1994 World Cup for the first time in 44 years.

That success “taught me that everything is possible,” he told the Star. “It gave me a lesson, that you can realize big dreams if you give everything that you have.”

After the tournament, Claure returned to Boston. As he tells it, one day he walked into a shop there to buy a cellphone. The shop’s owner made him an offer: buy into the company, and get the phone for free. Claure agreed. Soon he was opening more stores in the budding cellphone industry.

The experience landed him a job at a tech company in California. It did not work out.

“I realized I wasn’t too good working for anybody else,” he told the Herald. In 1997, “I decided to just pack my bags, rent an enormous U-Haul, and drive all the way down to Miami.”

The draw: Miami’s proximity to Latin America. There, the market for cellphones was still in its infancy; Claure formed Brightstar to capitalize on the opportunity to distribute cellphones in the region. In those years, Claure says, the firm was more like a Latin American company “with a small domicile in Miami.” When Brightstar finally opened an office in Libertyville, Ill., to serve U.S. customers, “it was a strange case of a Latin American company coming to the U.S. market,” Claure told the Herald.

By 2004, the company was providing one out of every two cellphones sold in Latin America, thanks to an exclusive licensing deal with Motorola — an arrangement facilitated by Claure’s business relationship with Mexican telecom mogul Carlos Slim.

“Marcelo is a business savant,” said Dave Peterson, who co-founded Brightstar with Claure. He said Claure creates a “pied-piper”-like following among most people who encounter him.

Brightstar execs planned for an IPO around 2004, but ultimately decided to shelve it. Still, by 2007, Brightstar was valued at $1 billion after a private equity company invested $283 million. It had operations in approximately 51 countries on six continents. Claure was 36.

“[Claure] grew Brightstar from nothing into one of the nation’s biggest suppliers of phones during a period of time when there was massive growth in the phone and smartphone industry,” said Mike Dano, editor-in-chief of FierceWireless, which covers the telecom industry.

Thanks in part to its global reach, Brightstar survived the 2008-2009 economic downturn. By 2011, it employed 4,000 worldwide and was ranked by Forbes as the 70th-largest privately held company in the U.S. with nearly $6 billion in revenues. The year before, Claure had celebrated his 40th birthday in Miami; Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony were guests, and the Gypsy Kings performed.

“Brightstar could have been described as a risky enterprise when founded in the late ‘90s, but in record time the organization grew to become a global powerhouse in the wireless communications industry,” said Albert Maury, president and CEO of Leon Medical Centers in Miami. Maury served on the Florida International University board of trustees with Claure and became familiar with the business. “In many ways, this organization’s roots has served to position Miami as a hub for technology in the hemisphere,” he said.

The path hasn’t always been smooth. Claure and his first wife divorced in 2004. In 2012, Brightstar was sued by executives of a firm the company had purchased, alleging Brightstar had not provided fair value in the acquisition. The matter was settled out of court. A year later, an employee sued Brightstar alleging she had been fired by another executive because she was pregnant. That matter, too, was settled out of court.

Claure was also accused by the head of Bolivia’s soccer federation in 2012 of having sold tickets on the black market during the team’s 1994 World Cup run. Claure sued in Florida court for defamation. The charges and the case went nowhere.

Brightstar again planned to go public, then canceled after SoftBank took a $1.26 billion stake — 57 percent of the company — in 2013. Within a year, SoftBank named Claure as CEO of Sprint, tasking him with improving the company’s performance as it engaged in a bitter competition with T-Mobile to become America’s third-largest carrier.

Sprinting to Kansas City

Miami and Kansas City seem a long way apart, both geographically and culturally. But for a globetrotter like Claure, it was simply another place to learn about.

“It’s actually nice... very good people,” he said.

Sprint was at a crossroads in the summer of 2014. The telecom was bleeding market share. The company’s share price never recovered to pre-recession levels, and it was ranked last among big carriers in network speeds and data performance. SoftBank, which had owned the company for only two years, was already talking to T-Mobile about a merger.

Claure cut thousands of jobs to loosen up money for improving its network and increase its marketing.

Meanwhile, he moved his then-two young children and wife to his new house in the city’s upscale Mission Hills neighborhood and engaged with Kansas City’s philanthropic circles. Peter deSilva, a longtime Kansas City area banker now serving as an executive with TD Ameritrade, met Claure shortly after he arrived in town.

“The thing I loved about Marcelo, he was just so interested in how he could help Kansas City, how Sprint could help Kansas City, and how he could become an important contributor in the community,” deSilva said. “It really struck me for someone as busy as he was about to become, and it made a big difference.”

Even after Claure announced layoffs at Sprint, deSilva said, Claure was careful not to alienate himself. “There’s the what, and there’s the how,” deSilva said. “He couldn’t have done it any better.”

Still, he’ll always be remembered as the man who sold Sprint to T-Mobile, likely erasing the Sprint name, says Jeff Moore, principal at Kansas-based Wave 7 Research.

Claure’s Kansas City legacy, Moore says, “is a mixed bag.”

Some analysts say Sprint’s merger with T-Mobile was likely inevitable, especially after it became clear T-Mobile would become the nation’s third-largest carrier. Dano, of FierceWireless, says he believes “the jury is still out on whether [Claure] was ultimately successful at Sprint.”

But some will argue that that may have more to do with SoftBank than Claure himself.

Blair Levin, an analyst with New Street Research, says its unclear whether SoftBank was ever fully committed to a turnaround — or whether Claure’s job was simply to position the company so that a merger with T-Mobile would become viable. “He was given a very difficult task, and part of what made it difficult is that it was not clear what his task was,” said Levin.

If the company balance sheet is a measure, his Sprint tenure counts as a win. In the most recent quarter, the company had gross profits of $5 billion, the highest in its history.

During his Sprint tenure, Claure always kept one foot in Miami. He never sold his Miami Beach home, and at one point told the Star that he missed the city’s “excitement [and] speed.” He even continued to wear Miami gear when out in Kansas City, the Star reported.

Soccer dreams and realities

Athletic and 6’6” tall, Claure was a natural sports fan. In pick-up soccer matches, he often played goalie. During the Miami Heat’s Three Kings era, he was frequently found courtside. He has also been known to enjoy riding dirt bikes. In 2008, he purchased Bolivia’s largest soccer team, Club Bolívar.

Miami’s potential as a soccer hub remained close to his heart even as he relocated to Kansas. His first attempt to bring an MLS team to Miami, in 2008, fell flat within a year, a victim of the global financial crisis. He revived the idea in 2012 after entering the orbit of Simon Fuller, former manager of the Spice Girls and a close friend of David Beckham, who announced his intention to run a pro team as he retired.

“[Fuller] texted me that David would come out to meet me in Miami for one weekend, and he absolutely fell in love with it,” Claure said. “Thank God we got along good, too. He decided to become a partner.”

Completing the investment group were Miami businessmen Jorge and Jose Mas, whose bid for the Miami Marlins had fallen short.

Claure first envisioned PortMiami as the soccer team’s home, but the idea was batted down by the Port’s cruise ship tenants. Other site ideas soon followed: in Marlins Park. Next to Marlins Park. At FIU.

A proposal to sell a site in Overtown to the Beckham group received approval from Miami-Dade county commissioners just this June. The surrounding community balked; a lawsuit claimed the city had unfairly given no-bid access to the site. (A judge dismissed it Tuesday.)

Meanwhile, the current site at the International Links Melreese Country Club golf course has been put on the ballot for city of Miami voters in November.

Asked why he didn’t simply buy land from a private developer for the stadium site, Claure said that Miami doesn’t have another space large enough to accommodate the group’s vision.

“I don’t think there’s another great spot left in Miami,” he said. “Yes, there were sites sufficient to build a stadium, but no sites left to build a community — a true soccer community.”

He continued, “The great stadiums around the world, they’re more than just stadiums. It’s a place a community likes to go to three hours prior to a game to congregate.”

Claure acknowledges that Miami’s relationship with its professional teams is often fickle. As an avid sports fan, he has few illusions about what it will take to make Inter Miami catch on.

“There’s only one recipe for sports to happen in Miami, and that’s to have a winning team,” he said. “There’s no other way — we’ve seen it.

“The competition in Miami is the city itself. On a Sunday afternoon there are so many things — boating, the beach — so many beautiful things going on, and then the other sports. But what we’ve seen with Miami fans, when you have a winning team, they will come.”

Even Miami’s enormous base of soccer-loving Latin residents is no guarantee of Inter’s success, he admits. Many Latin Americans follow teams in their home countries. But Claure believes there can be room for those teams and Inter, too.

“We want to make sure we make it feel like the whole community owns the team,” he said.

SoftBank in Miami?

The question has been asked before: What is SoftBank — and what does Claure do there?

What started out as a local Japanese software distributor in the early 1980s is now a company overseeing investments valued at $420 billion, according to Claure. In a recent note to clients reported by Bloomberg, Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Chris Lane called SoftBank “a tech-focused Berkshire Hathaway,” referring to the Warren Buffett-managed investment group. At a briefing in August, SoftBank founder, CEO and chairman Masayoshi Son declared, “We are creating a group of the world’s most advanced unicorn companies.”

The two titles Claure took on in May — COO of SoftBank Group and CEO of SoftBank International — means he does, “a lot — many different things,” he said.

His brief job description: SoftBank’s team in Japan decides in which companies to invest its billions, and Claure hits the road to make sure the companies are being well run.

“It’s about how can we make sure they’re growing and getting market share,” he said.

For Claure, that means overseeing firms in sectors including renewable energy, artificial intelligence and ride-sharing to payments.

SoftBank remains tightly controlled from its Tokyo headquarters. As it looks to expand into Latin America, it is unclear whether SoftBank will join the ranks of other companies setting up their Americas headquarters in Miami.

“Are we better off in Brazil — in Rio? Sao Paolo? Buenos Aires? Mexico City? Monterrey? Or are we better off in Miami? In the next few weeks, or next few months, we will determine. I have no doubt we’ll have an office in Miami, but from where do we tackle Latin America, I’m not certain.”

One obvious option would be the new soccer park, provided Miami voters approve the use of the Melreese land. The vision for the soccer complex includes multiple public soccer fields, green space where families can take walks, as well as multi-use commercial space. Claure’s ownership group anticipates hundreds of millions in revenues from the complex’s tenants.

In a meeting with the Miami Herald editorial board, representatives for the club mentioned bringing in a high-profile tech tenant, but didn’t elaborate.

Nor did Claure.

“We should be able to attract the tech community,” he said.

It seems likely the complex will at least have a co-working space. One year ago, SoftBank invested $4.4 billion in WeWork. Claure wants the complex to be a go-to spot for workers and executives coming in and out of MIA Airport.

“You should be able to land in the city and rent an office for a day, a week, an hour,” he said.

At home abroad

Today, Claure embraces the image of Miami as a global hotspot, one that is outgrowing its old fun-and-sun image.

“I remember when there was no traffic in Brickell, when we didn’t have world’s best restaurants. It wasn’t so busy. It has transformed so fast.”

Those who know him best say Claure will now become an integral part of Miami’s fabric.

“I believe that... that this will go beyond just a soccer team,” said Parker, Claure’s attorney. “He’s able to bring people together for a common goal. I think he’ll be able to work with city and county leaders... on numerous projects.”

And Claure believes Miami’s startup activity will eventually coalesce into the next major business hit. SoftBank itself recently invested $2 million in Miami-based Neighborhood Fuel, a company that fills consumers’ gas tanks while they’re at work.

“I think the fact we have so much startup activity — many will become next the Brightstar, the next Uber, the next WeWork. But it’s painful, it’s lengthy. Hard work is needed. There are no shortcuts.”

Yet it’s clear that Claure is someone not easily tied down to any one place. In his new role, he envisions doing as much if not more traveling as he has ever done, helping expand SoftBank’s reach to places like Europe and Africa.

“As part of my role I have a global responsibility for anything that happens in SoftBank or around the world,” he said.

But he recognizes that, as the owner of what could be the highest-profile MLS team in America, his connection to the city has now been cemented.

“I knew the moment I did this, that that would be my link to the city — and I never wanted to let it go,” he said. “This is now your role in Miami, the moment you own a sports franchise, therefore I will always be linked to Miami. Whether I live here or not, you’re part of the community.”

Raul Marcelo Claure

Born: Dec. 9, 1970, in Guatemala, of Bolivian parents

Titles: Executive chairman, Sprint; COO, SoftBank Group; CEO, SoftBank Group International

Education: Bachelors in economics and finance, Bentley University, Waltham, Mass.

Spouse: Jordan Claure

Children: Six

Club Internacional de Fútbol Miami ownership: 35 percent

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