Vodafone boss makes history with sale

Former McKinsey partner cements legacy by offloading Verizon Wireless for US$130 billion

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 September, 2013, 4:52am

Vodafone Group chief executive Vittorio Colao has cemented his legacy as the man who shrank the world's biggest mobile-phone company and cleansed it of past excesses.

In November 2009, just over a year after taking the helm, the former McKinsey & Co partner said that his mission was to "solve" Verizon Wireless.

While the venture with Verizon Communications - now the biggest US mobile-phone company - was a source of billions of US dollars in profits, it was out of his control because Vodafone held just 45 per cent.

This week, he did it, getting US$130 billion in the biggest deal in a decade.

"It's a great asset; it's an asset with a fantastic team managing it," Colao said in a television interview. "We got the value that a good asset deserves."

The stake's sale fits with the 51-year-old surfer's mantra, according to a person close to him, who asked not to be identified recounting private conversations: "Ride the wave, don't try to dominate it. Otherwise, it'll kill you."

It took Colao, the son of a policeman, five years to clinch the Verizon Wireless deal, a wait that paid off as Vodafone held out for US$130 billion, US$30 billion more than New York-based Verizon was said to have proposed at the start of this year.

"Colao has deep strategic perspective, and he's also very energetic when it's time to execute, make decisions and push for deals to get done," said Francisco Roman, chairman of Vodafone's Spanish unit, hours before the deal was announced.

In his five years as chief, Colao has unwound the globe-spanning empire his predecessors built, emphasising profitability over maintaining Vodafone's size. As he cut holdings in France, Japan, Poland and China and focused on getting out of what Vodafone did not control, China Mobile usurped it by revenue in 2010. Today, Vodafone trails the Chinese carrier by revenue and subscribers.

Under the Italian native's tenure, Vodafone stock has risen 40 per cent, adding about £20 billion (HK$242 billion) to the British company's market value. The shares have gained 22 per cent since March 5, when it was reported that the two companies were seeking to resolve the partnership this year.

Colao's reputation as a shrewd dealmaker stems in part from his disposal of Vodafone's 44 per cent stake in French mobile-phone company SFR to majority owner Vivendi.

He said jokingly in October 2010 that he planned to send the then-Vivendi chief executive Jean-Bernard Levy a fountain pen for Christmas to sign the cheque. Eight months later, he walked away with more than US$10 billion. The 2011 sale came at the top of the market, just before a price war that gutted wireless rates in France. Levy estimated that full control of the stake would add €600 million (HK$6.1 billion) to adjusted profit in 2012 and 2013.

A year later he told investors he had lost 208,000 subscribers in the first two months of 2012 and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation would drop as much as 15 per cent in 2012.

Levy stepped down in June that year after failing to revive the company's stock from a nine-year low and amid strategy differences with the board.

Colao "struck the deal to sell SFR and what happened a year later was the company started to collapse", said Robin Bienenstock, an analyst at Sanford C Bernstein in London.

Miscalculations were the major reasons why the board asked Levy to go, a person familiar with the company's decision said, asking not to be named.

The Verizon sale caps Colao's efforts to trim back Vodafone, leaving it with assets in Europe, Africa and India and about US$10 billion in cash to fortify them.