When it comes to the art of the deal, Chris Gent is in a league of his own. The 51-year-old chief executive of Britain's Vodafone AirTouch PLC has been on a buying binge, with each deal superceding the last in scope. Since January, 1999, when, as Vodafone's chief, he scooped up U.S. rival AirTouch Communications Inc., he has negotiated a $70 billion venture with Bell Atlantic Corp. to combine both companies' wireless assets in the U.S. And he has acquired Germany's Mannesmann for $183 billion after a hostile takeover battle. Gent's latest coup? Snapping up one of five highly coveted British licenses for the next generation of mobile phones for $8.7 billion.
Gent's ability to pull off those bold deals, financed largely with stock, has made Vodafone the world's leading wireless-communications company. Articulate and ambitious, with a penchant for chalk-stripe suits, Gent became Vodafone's CEO three years ago. Since then, he has had little time to indulge his passions, which include collecting fine wine and 17th century English oak furniture, and tooling around the Berkshire countryside in his Aston Martin DB8.
These days, the urbane, recently remarried Gent seems to be always on planes, shuttling among his various companies. "This business has a tremendous intensity," he says. "But it's not the deals themselves that are exciting, it's what we are creating--a global powerhouse."
That's not just ego talking. Vodafone is likely to make a killing in the next phase of the Internet's evolution: mobile telephony. Gent predicts that for the remainder of the decade, Vodafone will see significant revenue growth from wireless and Internet data services. Those two areas, he says, "will be the main growth engines to keep us north of 20% growth for the rest of the decade."
Vodafone's employees will be among the beneficiaries. In July, 1998, Gent offered every employee stock options--"right down to the cleaning staff," as he puts it. Since then, the value of those options has more than doubled. "People are well-motivated, as they have a real stake in the company's success," he says. His employees describe him as an authoritative, hands-on manager who refuses to take no for an answer.
Gent is a longtime advocate of cellular communications. Prior to joining Vodafone in 1985, he worked in the computer industry for 14 years, six of which he spent as director of network services at British computer giant ICL. Colleagues recall him waxing poetic on the importance of what was then called "cellular radio." At that time, few people had any idea of the potential of mobile phones. Today, Gent seems something of a visionary.
Yet few could have predicted that Gent would be among the captains of global industry. One of four brothers, he grew up in South London. After the death of his sailor father when Gent was a teenager, he decided to skip university and enter the workforce. At the age of 19, he took a job as a trainee at Britain's National Westminster Bank. Shortly after, he discovered an interest in politics and became national chairman of the Young Conservatives.
It was during this time that he befriended former Prime Minister John Major, with whom he remains close friends. The two often travel together to see the British cricket team play. Although he briefly flirted with the idea of running for Parliament, Gent decided to focus on business.
His political connections came in handy in 1985 when he joined Vodafone as its operational managing director. At the time, Britain's telecom industry was undergoing massive deregulation, and Gent was ideally placed to lobby on behalf of Vodafone.
Gent rose quickly through the ranks at Vodafone--so quickly, in fact, that internally, he earned the nickname "cornjumper" for what some perceived as his ability to step on the toes of rivals to get to the top. Outside Vodafone AirTouch, industry executives and analysts describe Gent as an extremely personable and skilled networker, but few people in the business claim to know him well.
Indeed, Gent is notoriously publicity-shy and intensely private. But if he continues his current pace of high-profile acquisitions and multibillion-dollar ventures, he is likely to dominate center stage among global corporate empire builders whether he likes it or not.