Juan Villalonga has always vied to be No. 1, even during his days as an MBA student at the University of Navarra in Barcelona. A caricature of his graduate class depicts the unconventional scholar as a feisty bulldog sporting an elegant tie, sitting out in front of all his classmates. Now the chief executive of Telefonica, Villalonga, 47, is driving to make the Spanish telecom giant a global leader in everything from Internet access to media content.
He has already built an impressive $22 billion empire out of a company that, just a few years ago, did little business outside Spain. In four years Villalonga has acquired the top slot in Latin America's phone market, with 30 million customers. Profits in 1999 jumped 38% to $2 billion, while market cap has risen sixfold to $15 billion.
Now comes the crucial part of the game, as Villalonga extends his reach to North America, Europe, and Asia. On May 16, his Internet subsidiary, Terra Networks, nabbed Lycos for $12.5 billion, making Villalonga the first European CEO to buy a major U.S. Internet company. The Lycos deal was a rapid-fire rebound from Villalonga's merger bid for Dutch telecom giant KPN, which the Spanish government shot down. But other deals are already done, such as Telefonica's March purchase of successful Dutch TV programmer Endomol Entertainment Holding. Villalonga is set on building the critical mass to challenge the America Online-Time Warner combo. Unless, of course, a rival checkmates him first.