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Visionary steals the big prize

Vodafone's boss realises long-held ambition with the acquisition of AirTouch. Hilary Clarke reports
IT'S ALWAYS good to know that the chief executive of any company has faith in the product his company sells. Chris Gent, chief executive of the mobile phone company, Vodafone, certainly does. The 50-year-old conducted the Buckinghamshire-based firm's $61bn purchase of US phone company AirTouch over a cell phone - from his holiday in Australia.

That fact says as much about the relaxed management style of Gent, who empowered his managers to hammer out the details of the deal, as the quality of the product. That a company that was a mere upstart in the developing mobile phone market just ten years ago can in just ten years become bigger than the incumbent national operator, British Telecom, also says a lot about the Japanese-style unity and effectiveness of the company board, which includes Vodafone's founder and first chief executive, Sir Gerald Whent.

But once the dust has settled on the merger, it will be Gent who runs off with the credit.

Since he joined Vodafone as managing director of UK operations in 1985, Gent, who started his career in the computer industry, has gobbled up market share from his main rival, BT, so that in the UK Vodafone has 37 per cent of the lucrative and growing mobile phone market. Indeed, Vodafone has been the market leader in Britain for more than ten years. Last Christmas the company sold its 5 millionth cell phone.

Not bad for someone who in his early years looked set on a political career path. In the late Sixties, when most of the student world was advocating revolution, Gent was busy fighting it as chairman of the Young Conservatives. In his industry however, he has gained the reputation of something of a soothsayer, predicting the rise of "cellular radio" more than 15 years ago when most of his industry colleagues didn't know what he was talking about.

Gent was born at Gosport near Portsmouth but spent most of his formative years in London. He was educated at the Archbishop Tenison school opposite the Oval cricket ground in south-west London. There he developed his life- long passion for cricket and he remains a member of the Hampshire cricket club even though he left the country many years ago.

He is poplar at Vodafone for his "sleeves-up, hands off" style of management, as one employee described it, a distinct contrast to his predecessor Whent, a self-described "benign dictator" and entrepreneur. The two men are said to compliment each other very well.

Gent has made no secret of his dream to buy AirTouch. The company first entered negotiations with its US counterpart 18 months ago. They floundered however, and it was only when Bell Atlantic made a $45bn bid for its US rival that AirTouch came back into the frame with a bigger offer - directed by Gent who was watching the cricket in Australia - and scuttled off with the prize.

Granted, the two companies knew each other quite well. Apart from months of merger negotiations they worked together in Sweden and Egypt and there has been much mutual back-patting by two management teams, whose companies have tracked similar courses, AirTouch also starting out as a young upstart.

Gent has always seen overseas expansion as the company's route to success. At that time, the company's business was in the UK only. It now has operations in 11 countries

Even as managing director of Vodafone's UK operations, Gent was instrumental in setting up the networks abroad. Vodafone's first foreign venture was with Malta.

"It helped us to develop strategies through a small start," said a Vodafone spokesman.

Similarly, Vodafone gained a lot of experience in the pre-paid phone market by its venture in South Africa where Vodafone's partly-owned operation now accounts for 25 per cent of that country's traffic, with many of its customers impoverished black people in the townships who have no credit history. Vodafone expects no interference in the merger from regulators as there is no market overlap in the US and little in Europe between the two firms, with the exception of Germany where some concessions may have to be made in order to have the deal approved.

So it all looks like plain sailing for Gent, who apart from overseeing Vodafone's international strategy, has also recently restructured distribution and modernised the company's image - introducing the new red logo.

Despite his penchant for wearing red braces, Gent is not viewed as a flamboyant character, although he did recently buy an Aston Martin.