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Leaping from the shadow
Leap Wireless and Harvey White
leave the old home at Qualcomm
By Jennifer Davies
March 4, 2001
At 6 feet 7 inches tall, Harvey White isn' t easily
Yet White, the chief executive and chairman of Leap Wireless
International, still is emerging from the long shadow cast by
Qualcomm, a company he helped establish.
Even though it is a $1 billion company with plans to offer
phone service in 35 cities by the end of the year, Leap has yet
to shed its image as a mere spinoff of Qualcomm, the San
Diego-based wireless technology giant.
"I' d like people to think that what we' re doing today is
because of what we are, not because we are spun off of
Qualcomm," White says, with just a hint of a Southern drawl
creeping into his quiet voice. "Whether we were spun off or
rose up out of the swamp, what difference does it make?"
Leap is making a name for itself by tapping into a market
all-too-often ignored by the heavyweights of cell phone
service. Instead of focusing on the high-tech crowd or the jet
set, Leap is targeting average folks who stay close to home.
With its flat-rate, all-you-can-talk Cricket service, Leap is
striking a chord with the common consumer. It is a market that
White understands and with which he connects.
He slips into a full-scale twang when talking about the
enjoyment he gets from talking to real customers and Leap' s
front-line installers. "I' m just a boy from West Virginia,"
White says, as if that' s explanation enough.
White' s understanding of his target customers appears to be
Cricket has signed up about 190,000 subscribers in less than
two years and plans to have 1 million by the end of 2001. With
its service available in 13 cities, including Chattanooga, Tenn.,
and Wichita, Kan., Leap wants to add 22 cities by the end of
Leap originally went after the global market, setting up
operations on four continents. But White is nothing if not
adaptable, and his company shifted gears in September 1999.
Since then, Leap has divested most of its international
To punctuate the change, the company is rebranding itself,
slicing the Wireless International off its moniker and revamping
its logo. White will unveil Leap' s new look this Tuesday he
opens the Nasdaq.
While Leap is transforming itself, White, 66, has entered a new
phase of his career -- one in which he alone holds the
spotlight. For close to 20 years, White shared the mantle of
power at Qualcomm, and, before that, at defense contractor
Linkabit, with Irwin Jacobs, the founder and chief executive of
Together with five other founders, White and Jacobs helped
build Qualcomm into the behemoth it is today.
Instead of staying on at Qualcomm or retiring to enjoy his
wireless riches, though, White struck out on his own in 1998
and started Leap, with a plan of building a cell phone service
for ordinary people.
The decision to spin off Leap was a gamble, both on a
personal and professional level. White champions the move,
saying the carrier assets were lost in the larger company and
the cash needed to grow the phone service business was
dragging Qualcomm' s share price down.
With Qualcomm' s market capitalization exploding more than
1,300 percent since the spinoff, the decision has paid off for
Jacobs, 67, says White' s decision to jump ship may have
been inspired by more than business considerations.
"Psychologically, it' s like a child, I guess, with a parent,"
Jacobs says. "At some point, you want to stop being the child
and be on your own."
Two roads diverged
When charting his professional life, however, White was very
much on his own. Growing up, he had no real role models to
show him what a career in business was all about, he says.
White' s tendency to hop from job to job in some ways
mirrors the career of the man who helped raise him: his
stepfather, a salesman "who sold anything," White says.
"I mean, he sold shoes. He sold chemicals. He sold paper. He
sold steel," White recalls. "He was just a very typical
salesman, and as such he had no real knowledge of how
business ran other than to sell stuff."
Reflections such as these are rare, as White readily admits that
he isn' t prone to introspection. Asked about memories of his
early childhood, White shrugs and says he has none.
"But my parents divorced when I was 2, and my mother
remarried when I was 8, so I guess there' s a whole lot just
tucked away somewhere," White responds dryly, waving off
the topic as banal and unworthy of discussion.
White planned to study chemistry in college, but he never
warmed to the idea of being locked up alone in lab with
bubbling beakers. He switched to a business major at Marshall
University in Huntington, W.Va., because he thought it would
be easier to find work.
"I just knew I was going to go to college and get a job," White
says. "I didn' t know what it was going to be or anything about
His first job was a humble one: setting performance standards
with a stop watch on the factory floor of a chemical plant.
It taught him how decisions of upper management affect the
foot soldiers below.
"I was at the very bottom of the organization with the hourly
people; many of the people I set standards on couldn' t read
or write," White says. "Just good, good people, but very
With no grand design except to be in the thick of the action,
White went into finance.
"I always figured that if everything ended up in dollars and you
were doing finance, you' d end up in the middle of things," he
In the late 1950s, he began an almost frenetic criss-cross of the
country, switching jobs every couple of years and moving
from West Virginia, where he was raised, to Tennessee, where
he worked for Raytheon, and on to Los Angeles and parts in
He arrived in San Diego in 1972 to work for defense
contractor Rohr Industries.
His oldest daughter, Katherine White, recalls how she and her
brother and sister begged their father to stay in one place.
By keeping his options open, White was able to chart an
eclectic path from head of a mattress company to owner of a
wholesale distribution company to president of Qualcomm.
Unlike others whose career plans are well charted, White says
he took a more opportunistic approach.
"There' d be a fork in the road, and I' d decide whether to take
the left fork or the right fork," White says matter-of-factly.
This openness is something he says he learned from his
mother, a maverick who kited off to New York to work on
radio at age 18. Even when his mother moved back to
Parkersburg, W.Va., where White spent most of his youth, she
didn' t tone down her style.
Later, after White had moved out on his own, his mother
relocated to nearby Lowell, Ohio, where her lifestyle and odd
visitors from the Big City caused apoplexy in the small
German town of 1,000 people.
"Nothing was off limits," he says. "She was just ahead of her
time in a lot of ways.
I mean, she believed in reincarnation when everybody else was
just going to church every Sunday."
Sky' s the limit
Even with that preparation, White hardly could have imagined
the frontier that would await him in 1978 when he answered a
classified ad for a job with a defense technology contractor
That ad would link him up with Jacobs, Andrew Viterbi other
technological heavy-hitters who were forming the team that
would later create Qualcomm.
Jacobs remembers that White' s application intrigued him.
"He mentioned that he was a member of Mensa, and I don' t
think I' ve ever seen any applicant that had made a point of
that," Jacob says. "So I say ' OK, he' s got a funny
background; I don' t recognize the school that he came from,
but he must be a reasonably bright guy.' So we invited him in,
and we hit it off pretty quickly."
White started as executive vice president and quickly ascended
to chief operating officer. During White' s tenure, Linkabit' s
revenues grew 50 percent each year for the life of the
company. At both Linkabit and Qualcomm, Jacobs and White
shared the top-tier of responsibility for two decades. Jacobs
concentrated on the technology, while White ran the company
on a day-to-day basis. Jacobs also served as the public face of
both companies, being recognized as the visionary and
Both Jacobs and White are nonchalant when they explain how
they established the trust necessary to share duties -- barely
acknowledging how brutal and back-biting the world of
business can be.
"You' ll end up going to meetings both together and then after
a while you' ll realize, ' OK, you know, he can handle that
aspect and I can handle this aspect,' " Jacobs says. "You
begin to get a feel for each other."
The decision to sell Linkabit to satellite company M/Acom in
1980 brought the fun to an end. When new management took
over, life at Linkabit became unbearable, White says.
"The corporate management wasn' t in tune with anything that
was at all going to lead to the future of the company," White
says. "It became less and less fun to be a part of that. Instead
of feeling like you were contributing to driving the whole
company forward, all of a sudden you were a division down
here that people were complaining about."
Jacobs and Viterbi left Linkabit on April Fool' s Day of 1985.
White says he wanted to leave as well.
"Those of us that were still left said, ' Gee, can' t we leave
too?' " White recalls. "(But) we didn' t have the same
In the months that followed, discussions began in earnest
about what to do next.
"We had been close compatriots and slowly the idea
germinated that maybe there was another company that we
could start and kind of start over again and be fresh," White
Jacobs says White was the driving force behind the idea of the
new company -- none other than Qualcomm, which was
established in July 1985. Perhaps he was a little more
aggressive because he had not been on the ground floor of
Linkabit, Jacobs suggests.
"He kept saying ' Maybe we ought to do this again; maybe we
ought to do this again,' " Jacobs says. "Without his
persistence, it might not have happened."
That drive is typical of White, his friends and relatives say.
When White went to work for Rohr Industries, he made an
instant impression on his co-workers.
Tom Bernard, a Leap alumnus who has worked with White off
and on for 29 years, said White' s aggressive style stood out in
the conservative environs. Strongly worded memos that
flouted conventional grammar and spelling -- often using ' sez'
for ' says' -- was just one of White' s calling cards.
"I know that doesn' t seem like much," Bernard says. "But he
was very different for his time."
White never had time for the nuances of office politics. He
recognized this weakness when he took a job at Whittaker in
Los Angeles in 1968. He was cautioned that the company was
in a difficult position, so he would have to go slow and tread
"I was really pretty much a failure," White says. "Not that I run
over people, but my style is to go get something done. This
needs to get done; let' s go figure out how to get this done."
The desire to solve problems quickly gave rise to White' s
reputation for impatience, as did the coffee mug he carried
while roaming the halls of Qualcomm. Its inscription: "Today
isn' t soon enough." "He, I think, at times can be abrasive. If
he thinks something doesn' t make sense or someone is not
thinking through the issue properly, he can comment on that
fairly strongly," Jacobs says, smiling as if at an inside joke.
"He can be less than diplomatic."
White attributes his take-charge nature in part to a colleague
who told him early in his career that because of his height he
could never blend into a crowd. As such, White could not
slouch into a room because his every move would be noticed.
But White' s overzealousness rarely seeps into his personal
life, which is dominated by refined cultural activities, such as
collecting American Indian pottery and serving as president of
the Old Globe Theatre, his daughter Katherine White says.
She recalls the incredulity of her aunt -- White' s sister,
Katherine Grego -- when Grego was told that White' s
assistant judged his mood on any given day by how much he
was yelling. Grego, who is 14 years White' s junior, was
"She said, ' What are you talking about? My brother doesn' t
yell,' " Katherine White says. "It' s amazing -- she had never
heard her brother yell."
White admits his impatience has its drawbacks, but says it' s a
"mixed blessing, too."
"If you don' t have a certain level of impatience," he says,
"then you never get anywhere."
Leaps and bounds
For example, when White told his troops at Leap early last
year that Cricket was going to reach 160,000 subscribers by
the end of 2000, many found the seemingly impossible task to
Leap didn' t finish the year with 160,000 customers -- it ended
It was no small feat, considering Leap' s Cricket service is
trying to siphon away market share from such giants of the
wireless industry as Sprint and AT&T Wireless, as well as the
old-fangled phone companies.
White credits Cricket' s success to the failure of many mobile
phone operators to capitalize on much of the wireless market.
Instead of concentrating on high-end consumers and pitching
expensive nationwide calling plans, Cricket focuses on
fixed-rate, local cell phone service. For about $30 a month,
users can talk as much as they want locally. So far, the service
is not available in San Diego County.
"People have basically treated this carrier business as kind of a
technology-adoption business, almost a high-end elitist sort of
product," White says. "I think they missed talking to the
customer -- or they only talked to the customer they knew."
It is this contact with the customer coupled with White' s
penchant to try things on his own that sent him to Leap in the
"At Qualcomm, it was a very exciting company -- a lot of neat
things going on," White says. "(But) I was at the point where I
was saying, ' Well, it would be kind of neat to go do
something different.' "
Bernard, White' s friend and former colleague, says Leap' s
gains have helped White get the recognition he' s deserved.
"He' s finally proven that he' s not just Irwin Jacobs' sidekick,"
A slumping economy and a sagging mobile phone sector are
testing White' s ability to react quickly.
White contends that Cricket will be insulated from much of the
downturn because its low cost will help it remain attractive to
consumers in tight times.
Still, it is unclear whether the financial markets will want to loan
money to mobile phone carriers such as Leap, which are
known for hemorrhaging cash in their early years. And with
such chilly market conditions, there is constant speculation
about whether a competitor will gobble Leap up.
But White is paying it no mind.
"I did not start Leap to sell it," White says. "My objective is to
build a major corporation."
Jennifer Davies' e-mail address is
email@example.com. Her phone number is (619)