Flamboyance, sheer cheek and the secrets of business success

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The Independent Online

The cheek of it. He resigns amid an investigation into insider trading and even manages to upset the prime minister; and for this he's rewarded with a whopping 4bn pesetas (£14.4m) pay-off.

The cheek of it. He resigns amid an investigation into insider trading and even manages to upset the prime minister; and for this he's rewarded with a whopping 4bn pesetas (£14.4m) pay-off.

The man in question is, of course, Juan Villalonga, the flamboyant former boss of Telefonica, the Spanish telecoms giant.

And the word "flamboyant" isn't used lightly here.

First, there is that small matter of alleged financial irregularities. While nothing has been proven, before Mr Villalonga's resignation last week the Spanish government was investigating deals struck over share options in Telefonica, which coincided with news about merger talks between US telecoms companies MCI and WorldCom.

His departure and handsome pay-off guarantee the investigation will be called off.

Next, there is Mr Villalonga's relationship with the Spanish prime minister José Maria Aznar. The two met at Madrid's elite Pilar school. Years later the leader of the centre-right government hand- picked Mr Villalonga to take charge of and privatise the former state telecoms company.

This was something Mr Villalonga, the former boss of Bankers Trust in Spain, relished. He turned Telefonica into one of Europe's best-performing telecoms companies, increasing its value five-fold. The company has even recently been touted as a potential bidder for BT.

But his relationship with Mr Aznar soured during the general election. Mr Villalonga planned to pay himself and his senior executives millions of share options. This was jumped on by the opposition socialist party, which gleefully trumpeted the fact that Mr Villalonga's considerable wealth was due in part to the prime minister.

Mr Villalonga's flamboyant style carried forward into his private life. In 1998 he started dating former Mexican beauty queen Adriana Abascal, the ex-girlfriend of Mexican media tycoon Emilio Azcarraga. The following year Mr Villalonga packed his bags and left his wife and three children to live with the former Miss Mexico. Shortly after that Ms Abascal gave birth to their first child, Pauline.

Mr Villalonga even had the cheek to suggest that Telefonica should uproot from its Madrid base and move to Miami. No coincidence at all that he was now happily rubbing shoulders with his new Miami neighbours, who included Gloria Estefan and Julio Iglesias.

Now, there is a point to this yarn about the colourful Mr Villalonga. His resignation and subsequent pay-off coincides with the rumpus at Vodafone over Chris Gent's £10m pay and bonus package.

At Vodafone shareholders caused a stink because Mr Gent's hefty package was not dependent on Vodafone making money out of the Mannesmann takeover, merely completing the deal.

With Mr Villalonga, he has clearly proved his mettle, by transforming Telefonica into a formidable telecoms force. He even won a string of glowing endorsements from the board upon his departure.

But nearly £15m for stepping down after such a torrid episode? That's a bit much.

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