The cricket-loving seaman's son who rose to dominate the world of communications

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The Independent Online
CHRIS GENT was watching a Test match in Sydney - a childhood dream - when he used a mobile phone to make a call that led in January to his company, Vodafone, becoming the world's biggest cellphone operator. That merger, with the American company AirTouch, was worth pounds 32bn; but for Vodafone's chief executive, who earned roughly pounds 4.5m last year, it was just another step on a road where new technology has always been a driving force.

Mr Gent, 51, the son of a seaman, was born in Gosport in Hampshire but brought up in Dulwich, south London. He was schooled at Archbishop Tennison Grammar School - near the Oval cricket ground. His interest in the slow-paced international game has remained: Vodafone sponsors England's team, he likes reading cricket memoirs and he listens to live radio commentary while in his Aston Martin DB8 car driving between his Berkshire home and the company headquarters in Newbury.

His career began as a junior clerk at NatWest at the age of 19. After a couple of years he left for Schroder Computer Services, where he stayed for eight years while dabbling in Tory politics. He became chairman of the Young Conservatives - aged 29. That career fizzled out when he told its annual conference the government should spend less on arms. However, he had learnt valuable lessons and made even more valuable contacts - such as John Major, the future Prime Minister.

In 1979 he joined the computer company ICL, then Britain's flagship in the sector. There he met more future stars, including Sir Peter Bonfield, now BT's chief executive. "He was an out-and-out networker, in the positive sense of the word, who got to know the kind of people who would give him the right kind of information," Sir Robert Atkins, a close friend of Mr Gent's, noted earlier this year. "He never does anything that isn't calculated."

Mr Gent joined Vodafone as managing director in 1985, when the company had just been set up and mobile phones were still clumsy. The duopoly with BT Cellnet earned the company vast riches, however.

Mr Gent used the political skills he learnt earlier in life to put him in line to succeed chief executive Sir Gerry Whent in 1997. "He has frozen out anyone who is not loyal and who doesn't owe their position to him," said one analyst.

The bid for Mannesmann, owner of Orange, would shrink the choices for phone users while expanding Vodafone's already vast reach. For Mr Gent, it will be just another part of his unstoppable expansion.