Gent flies to Germany in battle to win over Mannesmann investors

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CHRIS GENT, the chief executive of Vodafone AirTouch, flew into Germany last night to begin an intensive three-day lobbying campaign designed to win backing for his record pounds 77bn bid for Mannesmann, the German telecoms and engineering giant.

The move came as Tony Blair again voiced his backing for the Vodafone bid and Mannesmann sought to strengthen its defences by promising to speed up the demerger of its steel and engineering businesses.

The Prime Minister, who is attending a summit of world leaders in Florence said: "We live in a European market today where European companies, taking over other European companies, take over British companies and vice-versa. That's the European market".

His remarks were seen as a warning to the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, not to intervene in the bid battle after his comments on Friday that hostile bidders should proceed with "considerable prudence" for fear of harming themselves.

Mr Schroder appeared, however, to soften his stance yesterday. In a television interview he repeated his opposition to hostile takeover bids but said of the Mannesmann bid battle: "This is not going to become a problem between the governments, let alone the people, of Britain and Germany. Rather, it is something that must be sorted out at the corporate level."

The Vodafone campaign to win hearts and minds will target Mannesmann's big German institutional shareholders, as well as politicians, trade unions and the media. A Vodafone source said Mr Gent would also love to make a presentation about the merits of the all-share bid to Mannesmann's supervisory board, having twice been rebuffed by its chief executive, Klaus Esser, and his management board.

The demerger of Mannesmann's engineering and automotive interests, reckoned to be worth about pounds 5bn, will turn the company into a pure telecoms stock, enabling investors to judge its value better.

The Mannesmann chief executive also plans to begin rallying key German shareholders but he is not expected to visit shareholders in New York or London for at least a week.

A source in the Mannesmann camp insisted, however, that he had no intention of lobbying politicians, because the views of Mr Blair and Mr Schroder were "irrelevant" to an issue which should be decided by shareholders and no one else.

Mannesmann's pounds 22bn takeover of the UK mobile phone group Orange is expected to be declared unconditional today. The deal, which is partly financed with Mannesmann shares, will increase the proportion of the company which is held outside Germany from 55 per cent to as much as 65 per cent.

Shareholders in Orange, led by the Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing, will emerge with around 23 per cent of the enlarged equity of Mannesmann. Mr Li Ka-Shing, whose Hutchinson Whampoa group will own 10 per cent of Mannesmann shares, will be courted assiduously by Vodafone.

Vodafone is counting on the increased foreign shareholding in Mannesmann, coupled with the large cross-shareholdings in the two companies, to count in its favour. The UK group puts the overlap between those holdingVodafone and Mannesmann shares at 20-25 per cent. But Mannesmann argues the proportion of investors holding bigger stakes in Vodafone than Mannesmann is much lower at 8 per cent.