Gent bids emotional farewell to Vodafone

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The Independent Online

Luc Vandevelde, the chairman of the high-street retailer Marks & Spencer, was yesterday named as a seventh non-executive director on the board of Vodafone as the operator's chief executive -- Sir Christopher Gent - bade an emotional farewell in his last day in the job.

Addressing shareholders at the company's annual general meeting, Sir Christopher, his voice breaking with emotion, said he would "greatly miss" working at the company. "I not only love this business, but also the people in it," he said, calling the Vodafone management team the best in the industry. His speech won him a standing ovation from shareholders.

Vodafone's chairman, Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth, named Sir Christopher "Life President" of the company - an honorary role that will not pay a salary. Sir Christopher, who has consistently been one of the UK's top earners, worked at Vodafone for 18 and a half years in total and was chief executive from 1997. His successor is Arun Sarin.

Sir Christopher will continue working at the company for a couple of days a week until the end of 2003, and is also joining the board of Lehman Brothers. He is also expected to take on a high-profile role in the Conservative party, campaigning for the euro.

Despite the emotional tone of the AGM, shareholders still gave the directors a grilling. One shareholder said she was "not happy" with what directors were paid, questioning why the dividend could not be higher and calling it "crumbs" from the board's table.

Another said there was a "tremendous disparity" between what was paid to board members and what was paid to shareholders and suggested the board should not get pay rises next year. A third said Vodafone was being run for the benefit of directors. "It does seem there's only one group making any money and that's the group sitting up there," he said, referring to the directors.

Lord MacLaurin said remuneration was an issue that the company took "very seriously indeed" and something Vodafone was looking at "all the time". But he noted that directors' pay had to be in the "top echelons" in order to keep the best people. It emerged yesterday that the bulk of the executive directors had been granted pay-rises of around six to eight per cent from 1 July while non-executive directors saw their pay shoot up by 31 per cent to £85,000 a year. Mr Vandevelde's pay is believed to be at least the same as that awarded to non-executives last year.

The former Marks & Spencers boss will take up his position on the board on 1 September.

Another shareholder criticised Vodafone for not buying back shares, saying the number of shares in issue was like "confetti" while another expressed concern about the company's venture in the US, Verizon Wireless.