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Last Updated: Monday, 13 March 2006, 15:21 GMT
Vodafone regroups amid talk of feud
By Gavin Stamp
BBC News business reporter

Lord MacLaurin (left), Arun Sarin (middle), Sir Christopher Gent (right)
Lord MacLaurin, Arun Sarin and Sir Christopher Gent are under fierce scrutiny amid claims of a row

City analysts have called it the most divisive boardroom split in a major British company in a decade.

Yet, after former boss Sir Christopher Gent severed his ties with the firm after weeks of media speculation Vodafone denied reports of a rift among senior executives.

Vodafone's shares rose on Monday - in a rare recent piece of good news - as investors talked of an end to the recent bad publicity.

"The (Vodafone board) have stopped trying to shoot themselves," Brewin Dolphin's Stuart Fraser said in response to Sir Christopher's exit on Sunday and the public backing given by chairman Lord MacLaurin to his embattled chief executive Arun Sarin.

At the same time, serious questions are still being asked about Mr Sarin's authority and the future direction of the telecoms giant.

Open warfare?

Vodafone has rarely been out of the headlines in the last few months, mostly for the wrong reasons.

But murmurings of discontent about the firm's strategy and leadership have recently escalated into what some media reports have suggested was a state of open warfare among top executives.

At least you are now getting some certainty in terms of management, whether you are a Sarin supporter or not
Stuart Fraser, Brewin Dolphin

Those involved have sought to play down talk of any divisions.

Announcing his decision to quit the honorary position of life president - which he has held since stepping down as chief executive in 2003 - Sir Christopher said claims that he had been interfering in the running of the company were "without foundation".

Lord MacLaurin, meanwhile, said he and Vodafone's board were "totally supportive" of Mr Sarin - Sir Christopher's successor - in his efforts to take the business forward.

Despite such reassurances, recent evidence points to a company at best in awkward transition and, at worst, in a state of real flux.

Japanese problems

Operationally, Vodafone has been under growing pressure for the past 18 months.

Tougher competition, particularly in the largely under-performing 3G sector, is slowing its overall sales growth.

The firm recently warned that profit margins were set to fall in 2007 on the back of higher expenditure to keep and attract mobile phone users.

While continuing to enjoy strong growth in Europe and expanding its interests in fast-growing markets such as India, South Africa and Turkey, its successes have been eclipsed by problems in Japan and the US.

Arun Sarin, Vodafone chief executive
Arun Sarin has faced questions about his strategy for the firm

Despite regular changes of management, Vodafone's Japanese business has failed to recover from the underwhelming launch of its 3G service and continues to lose customers.

Vodafone is in talks to sell the business to Japanese firm SoftBank.

While the move has been applauded by many shareholders, it would nevertheless mark a fairly ignominious exit from a key market.

Vodafone is also under pressure to sell its US business to joint venture partner Verizon which some experts believe has disappointed.

Factions

Concerns about Vodafone's strategic direction - crystallised by its decision last month to write-down the holding value of its assets by up to 28bn - have been simmering for some time.

But it is the personal nature of the reported dispute - including allegations of different factions on the board - that has really made the headlines in recent days.

Vodafone 3G phone
Vodafone's sales growth is slowing

According to reports, a split has opened up between the so-called "Newbury Boys" - a group of executives led by Sir Christopher who oversaw the Berkshire based-firm's rapid expansion in the 1980s and 1990s - and other senior managers including chief executive Arun Sarin.

The recent ousting of marketing director Peter Bamford was seen by many observers as part of a renewed effort by Mr Sarin to stamp his authority on the company.

Vodafone says Mr Bamford's departure is part of a wider shake-up of its marketing operation.

Changing of the guard?

But he is just one of a number of longstanding executives closely associated with Sir Christopher who have already departed or are soon to leave the business.

Deputy chief executive Sir Julian Horn-Smith - a central figure in Vodafone's growth for two decades - is retiring in July, following in the footsteps of ex-finance director Ken Hydon who stepped down last year.

Chairman Lord MacLaurin - who oversaw Mr Sarin's surprise appointment - is also making way this summer to be replaced by outgoing HSBC chairman Sir John Bond.

I think there must be an element of falling on your sword on this
Andrew Monk, Oriel Securities

Whether this represents a natural "changing of the guard" or a co-ordinated "purge" of one faction by another, has become the subject of fierce speculation in the media.

One City analyst said it was in the best interests of Vodafone for Sir Christopher to sever his ties since his involvement - albeit in an honorary capacity - had left both him and Mr Sarin in an invidious position.

"I think there must be an element of falling on your sword on this," said Andrew Monk, from Oriel Securities.

"It is for the good of the company and, also of course, Sir Christopher Gent has other major positions in FTSE 100 companies and he doesn't want to drag them into it as well."

Unresolved issues

While the immediate "crisis" may be over, it remains to seen what long-term harm the bad publicity of recent weeks will do to Vodafone.

"At least you are now getting some certainty in terms of management, whether you are a Sarin supporter or not," Brewin Dolphin's Stuart Fraser said.

But he warned: "Longer term, there are concerns about trading and with the whole strategy going forward. That will need to be resolved."




SEE ALSO:
Smoke clears after Vodafone 'row'
13 Mar 06 |  Business
Vodafone row claims see Gent quit
17 Mar 06 |  Business
Vodafone sheds its marketing boss
08 Mar 06 |  Business
Vodafone could sell Japanese arm
03 Mar 06 |  Business
Vodafone in overvaluation warning
27 Feb 06 |  Business


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