Snook backs down as more bidders emerge for Orange

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The Independent Online

Hans Snook, chief executive of Orange, Britain's third largest mobile phone company, has softened his opposition to a £30bn-plus trade sale of the group, which is to be spun off by Vodafone AirTouch in the next six months.

Mr Snook and other senior Orange managers, including Graham Howe, finance director and deputy chief executive, had been expected to quit if the business were sold to another buyer rather than floated off. However, Mr Snook has indicated his willingness to accept a deal which allows the current management to press on with their business plan.

The shift in attitude comes as telecoms companies line up financing for a possible bid. Potential buyers are thought to include Telefonica and MCI WorldCom, both of which are well-advanced with plans to issue debt to finance an offer, as well as other telecom groups such as France Telekom and Japan's NTT DoCoMo.

Orange management and a number of Vodafone's institutional investors favour a relisting of the company, which was acquired when the Anglo-American group bought Mannesmann in February. Chris Gent, chief executive of Vodafone, pledged during the takeover battle for Mannesmann to spin-off Orange, although recent comments from Mario Monti, Europe's competition commissioner, have been interpreted as an indication that a trade sale could satisfy regulatory requirements.

To retain Mr Snook and others in the event of a trade sale, the buyer would have to allow Orange management broad autonomy. That would extend to endorsing customer service programmes as well as funding planned future growth both in Britain and overseas.

Orange already has interests in mobile licences in Belgium, Switzerland and Austria. But Mr Snook and his team are anxious to move quickly to acquire licences and network capacity in a bid to develop Orange as a leading mobile brand worldwide.

A step in that direction occurred earlier this year when Orange agreed to stump up several million pounds to become the lead sponsor of the Formula One Arrows team.

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