MacLaurin set to chair Vodafone

Lord MacLaurin, the former chairman of Tesco and now head of the England and Wales Cricket Board, is set to become the next chairman of the Vodafone cellular telephone operator.

He is expected to take over the post from Sir Ernest Harrison next year as part of a boardroom shake-up that will also see two new non-executive directors drafted in. Sir David Scholey, the former head of the investment bank SG Warburg, and Professor Alec Broers, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, are to take over from Sir William Varlow and Sir Robert Clark.

Lord MacLaurin was appointed to the board as a non-executive earlier this year. News of his elevation to the chairmanship came as Vodafone drove home its market leadership in the mobile telephone business by unveiling better than expected interim results and a new set of price reductions and predicting a record Christmas.

Vodafone claimed the price reductions would undercut Orange's tariffs by between 5 and 10 per cent, but Orange disputed this. The new price cuts will benefit 2.1 million Vodafone customers and will see peak-rate call charges cut by 12.5 per cent and off-peak rates fall by more than 15 per cent. Some charges will fall by up to 16.5 per cent.

Pre-tax profits for the six months to the end of September came in at pounds 297.5m - an 18 per cent improvement on last year and higher than the analysts' range of forecasts. Chris Gent, Vodafone's chief executive, said it had benefited from a particularly strong UK performance which resulted in underlying profit growth rising by pounds 42.5m.

The improvement in profits came despite a pounds 10m currency hit because of the strength of sterling and pounds 19m of restructuring charges. One of the main factors was a sharp drop in bonus payments to service providers which have shrunk from pounds 150 to pounds 86 per customer.

Mr Gent forecast a net growth in customers of around 120,000 in the current quarter adding: "It looks like being a very strong Christmas, probably our strongest ever."

Two-thirds of its 3 million subscribers have converted from analogue to digital service and usage rates are up from 113 to 133 minutes a month. Despite the clamp-down on the use of mobile phones in trains and the criticism of their use in cars, Mr Gent said usage levels were benefiting from the growth in the "walking and talking" market.

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