Vodafone breaks silence over bid intentions

CHRIS GENT, the chief executive of Vodafone AirTouch, the mobile phone giant, yesterday gave his clearest indication yet that Mannesmann, the German company in an agreed pounds 18.5bn bid for Orange, tops his list of acquisition targets.

Vodafone issued a statement saying no decisions had been taken about any specific options to participate in the consolidation of the global mobile phone industry.

"We continue to evaluation a broad range of opportunities including possible ways to develop Vodafone AirTouch's existing long-standing relationship with Mannesmann," the company said.

It is understood, however, that Vodafone is talking to Mannesmann shareholders and has made progress on a deal.

"It depends on what Mannesmann shareholders want to do. If we present them with a deal then they can say yes or no. Some must be unhappy about the price being paid for Orange was decided without asking them."

Vodafone's statement said its strategic priority was to develop D2, Omnitel Pronto Italia and SFR - the German, Italian and French mobile business in which it is in partnership with Mannesmann.

Mannesmann owns the German and Italian ventures and Vodafone has a minority stake. Both companies hold non-controlling stakes in SFR.

A spokeswoman for the company said the London Stock Exchange had not asked it to put out a statement to clarify its intentions. "It was just felt prudent to do so," she said.

Analysts said a tie-up now with Vodafone would insulate Mannesmann from a takeover later, after it breaks itself up into separate mobile phone and engineering units. US telecoms companies WorldCom and SBC Communications are considered strong candidates to bid for the company in 2000.

A deal would further enhance Vodafone's number one spot in a mobile market expected to be worth $102bn by 2003.

A bid for the group was unlikely to be made jointly with another company. "But we wouldn't rule out someone coming with us," said a source.

Vodafone is being advised by Goldman Sachs and SG Warburg.

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