(Reuters) - Dish Network Corp’s (DISH.O) billionaire chairman and founder, Charlie Ergen, may command all the attention when it comes to Dish’s $25.5 billion bid for Sprint Nextel Corp (S.N), but behind him is a somewhat anonymous technology junkie driving Dish’s wireless strategy.
Tom Cullen, an executive vice president who heads corporate development, has become Ergen’s closest confidante on all things wireless, with an office next to Ergen’s on Dish’s fourth floor, the highest rung of the building.
“In terms of the wireless strategy, I would argue that’s really Tom’s baby. That’s why he’s been on all these calls with Charlie. He’s the one who’s certainly spearheaded this effort,” said a person familiar with the situation. “But everyone likes to write about the billionaire. It’s just more entertaining.”
Cullen, 53, has been Ergen’s right hand man for the past few years, since Ergen started seriously considering wireless in 2007. After Dish made $3 billion in spectrum acquisitions in 2011, Cullen headed to Washington to work with Dish’s policy team to lobby the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to let Dish use its spectrum how it wanted.
Cullen was first introduced to Ergen in early 2006 by Carl Vogel, a senior Dish executive with whom Cullen had worked at cable company Charter Communications (CHTR.O). Cullen and Ergen ended up speaking for several hours about technology and consumer behavior. A year later, Cullen joined Dish.
From the beginning, Cullen had wireless experience, even though he had never worked for a traditional telecommunications company. Earlier in his career he held a senior position at MediaOne, a large cable company that was later acquired by Comcast (CMCSA.O).
Chuck Lillis, a former chief executive of MediaOne to whom Cullen reported, said that Cullen learned about various networks - wired and wireless - in the United States and Europe in 1990s, which he said gave Cullen a deep knowledge of the communications and telecommunications industries.
“Upgrading a network is a very expensive undertaking and Tom is a person who would have good understanding of what those economics would be,” Lillis said.
“It’s hard to imagine his fingerprints aren’t all over it,” Lillis said, referring to the Sprint deal.
The son of an American Express executive, Cullen moved around from New Jersey to Memphis, Tennessee, to Arizona in his youth as his father was transferred.
Now a Denver resident of 32 years and passionate fan of the city’s Broncos professional football team, he describes himself as a voracious reader of technical papers who can put down his reading to attend a basketball game.
In some ways he is the opposite of his boss, despite their close relationship.
Ergen brings his own lunch, while Cullen buys a meal at the cafeteria and eats at his desk. As much as Cullen favors the National Football League, Ergen is more rabid about college basketball. Cullen has always worn a sports jacket to work while Ergen prefers a more casual look of a sweater and button-down shirt.
While Ergen has been involved in countless corporate disputes that end up in court, Cullen is seen as being more open to understanding the other side of the negotiating table.
“He’s a natural bridge builder, that’s why he’s done well in M&A,” said one person who used to work for him at another company and was not authorized to speak to the media.
Another person who worked with Cullen at Dish said of his negotiating skills, “Tom can help put into words that Charlie can‘t. He might communicate more evenly whereas Charlie is speaking in his own personal interests to what he wants to gain.”
Ergen is hands-on and meets with vendors and goes to the office every day, but it is Cullen whom Ergen trusts to study the nuts and bolts of his bets and see what is possible. Often Cullen gathers information from lawyers, bankers and engineers and then relays it to Ergen.
“(Ergen)’s certainly a visionary and I run to ground a lot of the details behind executing the plan,” Cullen said in an interview. “We do complement each other and I do think we work well together. We are in each other’s offices quite a bit.”
While Cullen has to a degree participated in conference calls since 2009, his growing influence in the company is being noticed by Wall Street.
“It’s really quite striking, his sudden prominence,” said Denver-based Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan, who added Cullen has flown under the radar until now.
The Sprint bid, which Cullen said he is optimistic about as Dish waits for Sprint’s response, started to come together in his and Ergen’s minds in early March after years of mulling over a wireless plan.
He views the deal as the most high-stakes of his career, even as he starts to think about the next three to five years with the company.
“With that comes more of a senior advisory role to Charlie. But it’s more than advisory; obviously I‘m doing a lot of day-to-day work. It’s trust and confidence that you earn over time,” he said.
Reporting By Liana B. Baker; Editing by Ben Berkowitz