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Syniverse CEO in a rush to get to the future

Syniverse CEO Steve Gray says 2015 will be a transformative year for the company.
Syniverse CEO Steve Gray says 2015 will be a transformative year for the company.
Published Apr. 10, 2015

TAMPA — Change comes quickly in the telecommunications business. Syniverse has learned that lesson well over the past eight months.

The global player in mobile technology lost its CEO and gained a new one. It also laid off 100 of its 900 Tampa employees while integrating two newly acquired firms into its worldwide operations.

Now change is upon Syniverse once again. This time, though, the company is embarking on an ambitious new course set by new CEO Steve Gray.

He wants to be a leader in next-generation technologies that could give mobile consumers more security, more services and faster networks.

"I've looked at how we've dealt with various circumstances over the year," Gray said. "I think it's better prepared us to be ready for the next evolution in the mobile ecosystem."

• • •

While Gray looks to Syniverse's future, he's still dealing with its past and present.

The CEO expects revenues to remain flat or decline in the first half of 2015 while it ramps up its pursuit of new business opportunities. That's because of a reassessment of the company's costs and revenue.

"We have, quite frankly, a more realistic perspective of what our near-term revenue and growth looks like," Gray said.

Last year, Syniverse reported $916 million in revenue. The company beat 2013 revenues by $56 million, or 7 percent. But officials cautioned that increase was a one-time boost, thanks to the revenue from two companies that Syniverse bought.

In many ways, 2014 was a challenging year for the company. Jeff Gordon resigned as president and CEO on Aug. 20 for undisclosed personal reasons.

That was the same day that Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's real estate team filed documents with the city proposing to build a new downtown headquarters for Syniverse in the heart of Vinik's $1 billion redevelopment project.

After Gordon left, the company quickly ended any talk of moving downtown. Syniverse officials said that was one of several options it was pursuing.

But the company said it is no longer looking for a new home. It leases the 30th floor of the SunTrust Financial Centre downtown, but its network operations center is in New Tampa. It has committed to staying there — if it comes to terms with the landlord before the current lease expires in 2016.

• • •

On Aug. 26, six days after Gordon stepped down, Gray was named interim CEO.

Gray, 56, is a former MCI executive who has spent three decades in telecommunications and the past decade working for the Carlyle Group, the private equity firm that owns Syniverse. He also spent three years on Syniverse's board of directors.

In November, the company laid off about 300 employees worldwide to "streamline" operations.

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The board of directors also undertook a worldwide search for a new CEO. They interviewed three candidates — then offered Gray the job.

He took over permanently on Feb. 26.

Gray's annual salary is $750,000, not including bonuses. He also received a $1.3 million signing bonus, 700,000 restricted stock options and the chance to buy an additional 1.5 million shares.

He's a married father of three who travels between Tampa and his home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his youngest is a junior in high school.

He said that his hiring was not a sign that Carlyle is about to sell Syniverse or take it public. But eventually, he said, Carlyle will look to profit from its $2.6 billion purchase of the firm in 2010.

"Private equity firms raise money, they invest, they create value and they exit," Gray said. "That thesis has not changed."

• • •

One of Gray's biggest decisions was to speed the integration of two companies that Syniverse spent $1 billion to acquire: It bought Belgian cloud computing company Mach in 2012 and last year purchased Aicent, a California specialist in data networks.

The original plan was to integrate them by 2017.

"It just shouldn't take that long," Gray said.

Syniverse has finished distributing those employees worldwide. It now employs 2,600 in 45 offices serving 1,000 mobile networks on six continents. About 800 of those employees work in Hillsborough County.

The company plans to integrate the customers of those new acquisitions with its own customer base by this year's third quarter. The networks of all three companies should be merged by year's end.

Gray said the company also made sure it had "the right cost structure" in place compared to future revenue projections.

But whichever way revenues go, the CEO said that no more layoffs are planned for this year.

"When people hear those two words — cost structure — the first thing that jumps to mind are people and employees," Gray said. "We have no plans for further companywide workforce reductions."

Those days, Gray said, "are behind us."

• • •

A Verizon smartphone can text an AT&T phone and a Sprint customer can call a T-Mobile one thanks to the services and technologies developed by companies like Syniverse.

That enables mobile devices to communicate across different networks and different standards — and Syniverse profits from those interactions.

"We connect the dots in mobile," Gray said.

Now Syniverse is looking to connect the dots of the future:

• It wants to be at the forefront of the worldwide adoption of the faster LTE, or Long-Term Evolution, standard. That's displacing the old CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and GSM (Global System for Mobiles) radio systems for cellphones.

• Syniverse also wants to provide security to mobile networks. Its technology could, for example, detect stolen SIM cards or stolen phones logging free minutes on a network.

"When people steal or misuse phones," Gray said, "we can help the mobile networks to deactivate them or keep them off the network."

More than 100 mobile network operators use Syniverse's technology, Gray said, so when his company detects a pattern of fraud on one network, it can defend all the other networks.

He expects it to be a lucrative business.

"For every dollar we save them on fraud," he said, "we get a percent of those savings."

• Syniverse will also be involved in mobile engagement. Those technologies allow companies in the airline, financial and hospitality sectors to track and communicate with their customers' devices.

That could allow an airline to text a customer about a delayed flight, or let a hotel update a customer about their booking. It could also detect fraud, because Syniverse's network can determine if a customer was in the vicinity of a recent purchase.

"The vendor knows where the card is being used, and we know where the phone is," Gray said. "We compare those two records and we can say that 'Bobby is where his phone is.' "

After spending 10 years on the investment side with Carlyle, Syniverse represents Gray's return to management. He sees his job as focusing the company on its future.

"I would characterize 2015 as a transformative year for Syniverse," he said. "We feel good about the initiatives we're involved in, the assets we have and the people we have.

"Now it's a matter of execution."

Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.