Christopher Gent - 2000
Christopher Gent is Chief Executive of Vodafone AirTouch. He is a prominent figure in the world of wireless communications, well known for his ability to formulate an ambitious strategy and to achieve it. Indeed Vodafone is the world leader in the wireless sector.
Christopher Gent was born in Beckenham and educated at Archbishop Tennison Grammar School. He began his career at the National Westminster Bank, until 1979 when he became Managing Director of Baric, a computer services company jointly owned by Barclays and ICL.
t was around that time in the late seventies that he was chairman of the Young Conservatives and later a member of the Conservative Party's National Union Executive Committee as well as several other Committees. Who knows: he might now be an MP? But instead, in 1985 he joined Racal Vodafone, one of the two mobile phone operators then recently licensed.
It is hard to remember now what life was like before mobile phones. As little as fifteen years ago, they almost had to be carried around on a trolley and calls cost discouragingly large amounts. The companies which invested in the first networks were taking a genuine chance. Think how different things are today. We learnt recently that more than half the UK population has a mobile phone. In our lecture rooms where once we had notices prohibiting the use of cigarettes, we now enjoin our students not to use their mobile phones. This happens in primary schools too. In fact I am slightly surprised today in a large gathering such as today's that a mobile phone hasn't yet gone off. If it does, I know how embarrassed the person will be, as the same thing happened to me on a platform like this last week.
The mobile future holds even greater promise, with Internet applications and access to unlimited data on the move. In fact, quite soon there will be no reason ever to go to our homes and offices. It is quite likely that some of today's graduates will be involved in these developments, because several of the University's leading departments are now focused on the Internet.
Vodafone will be at the core of these developments. Chris Gent took over from the company's founding father, Sir Gerald Whent. He and his team had built up a highly successful and profitable business, mostly in the UK. But Gent has made it genuinely world-wide in the past two years. First, in 1999 he bought the California based AirTouch Communications company for $61bn. This created the world's largest cellular phone company and was then the biggest cross-border merger in history. Then, Vodafone AirTouch set its sights on Mannesmann.
The Mannesmann deal put Mr Gent continuously in the spotlight for several months. It was audacious, not only because of the size of the target, but also because until then hostile take-overs were not the sort of thing that happened in the relatively quiet world of German business. Mr Gent had not only to convince Mannesmann's shareholders, but also to neutralise opposition from the work force and in German political circles. But Vodafone, under his leadership, won the battle. His services continue to have repercussions, not only for Vodafone but also for him personally, as the last few days' headlines show.
These triumphs are the culmination of a long and successful career and judging by his record so far, there are almost certainly more achievements to come.
Mr Gent enjoys golf, skiing and tennis. But his real passion is cricket, and he has been known to travel long distances to attend matches. He is famous for instigating the AirTouch deal using his mobile phone from at the Sydney Cricket Ground! His love of cricket is evidenced by Vodafone's sponsorship of the English cricket team. Perhaps he will follow Lord MacLaurin, who Chairs his company in seeking to take the English game in hand. But that may be beyond even his capabilities. In the interest of balance, Vodafone also sponsors Manchester United Football Club, and I understand we will shortly be able to see their matches on our mobile phones.
Mr Gent told a press conference in Dusseldorf as he launched his bid for Mannesmann, "I am not a ruthless shark." Indeed, his private life and enthusiasm for sport shows a different side to his nature, but the phenomenal success of Vodafone stands as testimony to his ability as a business leader.
DSc - July 2000