Brainstorm Green

Sprint CEO: 'I still get crucified for deciding to carry the iPhone'

April 17, 2012: 2:49 PM ET

Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse is all for sustainability. The trick will be getting Wall Street on board.

One of the many benefits of being CEO is that you've got the clout to implement some of the things you believe in. For Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, a self-described "son of a Great Depression kid," this means trying to reduce waste and, in general, run a green company.

But that logic doesn't necessarily fly on Wall Street, which, Hesse says, has created a divide between what the company values and what gets traction on the street.

"I still get crucified for deciding to carry the Apple iPhone," Hesse told Fortune's Brainstorm Green conference attendees on April 17, "because in the short term, the investment is significant, but the payoff is long-term."

So even though Sprint has improved its position on Newsweek's Green Rankings every year since 2009, Hesse doesn't talk to most investors about the company's sustainability efforts, such as scrutinizing the supply chain it uses to make its phones and minimizing waste by helping consumers recycle Sprint (S) products. "We don't make a big deal about it because, quite frankly, there is a disconnect with Wall Street."

That disconnect is smaller for logistics companies like UPS (UPS), where there's a direct correlation between energy efficiency and cost savings. In those cases, investors do actually get jazzed at sustainable initiatives like getting a more fuel-efficient fleet, because it's easy to see how it saves money.

Still, Hesse believes that Sprint will ultimately be able to differentiate itself from larger telecom companies Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (T) in this fiercely competitive industry. "It's hard to quantify the value to the brand, but I believe it will be there," Hesse says. "It's a hope that eventually it'll pay off."

There are some small signs that investors are starting to care, says Kathrin Winkler, EMC's vice president of corporate sustainability. The return on investment for some of EMC's (EMC) sustainability efforts comes across as a rounding error to Wall Street, she says, but some mainstream institutional investors are starting to ask about green initiatives.  "It's a hint -- I don't know if it's a harbinger of things to come, but I hope so."

The Street's ability to see long-term will be key to Hesse's plan. But he and Spring face a long road. After all, Hesse is still confronting detractors who doubt his decision to carry the iPhone.

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Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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