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Vodafone

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Vodafone is one of the world's biggest mobile operators by global footprint, with a direct presence in more than 20 countries, and partners or affiliates in many more. The Vodafone brand now reaches over 520m customers worldwide, although its key markets are still mainly in Europe. Nevertheless, the group is building a significant position in India and South Africa. For several years it derived a substantial profit (if only on paper) from a 45% stake in Verizon Wireless of the US. In 2013, after years of on and off negotiation, the group managed to convert that holding into cash, agreeing to sell the shares back to Verizon for a whopping $130bn, the second largest deal in corporate history to-date. Vodafone originally transformed itself into a global giant with two breathtaking deals at the end of the 1990s in which it acquired US company Airtouch and German industrial and telecoms giant Mannesman. At its peak at the beginning of 2001 it was Europe's most valuable company and one of the world's top 10. More recently, however, the group has come under increasing pressure from its shareholders to find new ways of delivering further growth. Some analysts believe break-up or sale might be the best solution for the group, and there have been tentative discussions regarding some form of merger with cable group Liberty Global. Certainly, Vodafone's current strategy is to offer a converged service combining mobile communications with streamed media content.

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Competitors

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Brands & Activities

Despite intensifying competition and a rapid slowdown in sales and profit growth, Vodafone remains one of the leading players in wireless communications with a broad global profile, and a leading position in most territories in which it operates, most often as #2 behind the local national operator. It is also among the leaders in developing new services and technology. There are some notable gaps within the company's global footprint (Latin America, for example, and now France, the US and China, where it has no direct presence) but these are exceptions to the general rule. Vodafone has established a presence in developing markets through an aggressive acquisition strategy.

Vodafone's portfolio of international businesses is substantial. The group has directly controlled subsidiaries in 26 countries, and partnership interests in another 48 markets. Following further expansion of its footprint in India, total worldwide customer base had risen to 516m users by March 2017. Just over 80% were prepaid. A key target for the group has been to expand beyond the core service of mobile voice calls into multimedia and other mobile data and fixed line voice and data communications. The group made its first firm move into fixed line broadband services in 2006, and has expanded its offering in this field significantly since then. It directly controls local broadband or fixed line operators in several markets including Germany, Spain and Italy. Its two other key strategic objectives are to stimulate revenues and reduce costs in Europe, and to deliver strong growth in developing markets.

Another key area for growth is further expansion into cable TV services. In 2018, the group agreed to acquire the local cable operations of John Malone's Liberty Global group in Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania at a valuation of €18.4bn. That deal is subject to approval by regulators.

The group has reinforced its international presence with a small number of significant sports sponsorships. Past sponsorships have included Manchester United football team, the Derby horse race and the England cricket team. Perhaps the best-known was with the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Formula 1 team, which the company sponsored from 2007 to 2013. Vodafone's distribution is managed through third-party retailers as well as direct by phone or internet or via through a global network of around 7,000 Vodafone-branded stores, either wholly owned or franchised. In addition to the usual range of third-party handsets, the company also offers a range of its own less sophisticated Vodafone-branded phones. More recent developments included M-Pesa, a system for making payments via mobile handset, mainly available in emerging markets, as well as a SIM-enabled keyboard which can convert an ordinary TV into an internet terminal. Vodafone Red (or Vodafone Relax in some markets) is an integrated voice and data plan being rolled out to all the company's main markets offering a broad range of services including access to 4G.

In Europe, Vodafone's four most important markets are the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain; however these are increasingly being challenged in their importance to the group by the newer emerging markets of South Africa and India. Vodafone UK had 17.9m customers as of March 2017. Despite this being the company's home market, Vodafone now ranks in 3rd place (out of four operators) behind market leader EE (Orange/T-Mobile) and O2, with 23% share. It would have been pushed into last position in 2016 by the proposed merger of O2 and Three, but that deal was blocked by regulators. In 2013, Vodafone launched a prepaid mobile service for supermarket chain Sainsbury's, under the name Mobile By Sainsbury's. However it lost a similar partnership with BT, which was cancelled after the acquisition of C&W, a BT competitor. The Sainsbury's arrangement was also cancelled in 2015 as a result of weak demand. In 2017, the group launched new SIM-only brand Voxi in the UK targeting a youth market.

However the group has instead been building a modest stake in the UK fixed broadband sector. In 2012, it strengthened its position slightly with a deal to acquire Cable & Wireless, the once-substantial telecoms group which quit the mobile market in the 1990s to concentrate mainly on business communications. It owned the biggest fibre network in the UK as well as extensive international cable operations, and provides corporate communications services to a number of major multinational customers. Vodafone agreed to acquire the business for £1.04bn, less than half C&W's revenues in 2011. Vodafone now has around 4% share of UK broadband.

Vodafone has its own retail network in the UK, with around 500 outlets by mid-2017. It has boosted investment in this estate signifcantly since 2014 to reduce its reliance on third-party resellers such as Carphone Warehouse. Vodafone UK contributed revenues of €6.93bn in ye 2017, down sharply on the year before in the group's newly adopted reporting currency of Euros, and by around 3% on an organic basis.

In Germany, Vodafone was until 2014 the local #2, just behind T-Mobile. It was overtaken in summer 2014 by newly merged O2/E-Plus. It had 30.7m customers as of Mar 2017, equivalent to just under 34% mobile share. It also owns separately branded Arcor, Germany's #2 fixed line operator with almost 21% broadband share. The group offers bundled mobile and home communications in Germany under the "Vodafone zuhause" (or Vodafone At Home) banner. Otelo is a separately branded prepaid mobile service, launched in 2010 to head off competition from other discounted services. Vodafone substantially increased its local presence in 2013, agreeing to buy the country's biggest cable TV operator, Kabel Deutschland (KDG), for €7.7bn. Completion took place during 2014. Germany is Vodafone's single biggest market by revenues, contributing sales of €10.6bn in ye 2017. A substantial contribution to both revenue and profit comes from fixed line services, which generated revenues of £2.75bn that year. The proposed deal with Liberty Global in 2018 would also give Vodafone control of its main rival in cable service, Unitymedia.

Vodafone Italy has become another important business. Formerly known as Omnitel, Vodafone Italia was pushed into third place in that market following the 2016 merger of Wind and Hutchison 3 (or Tre). It had under 32% local share for the year to 2017, narrowly behind merged Wind Tre and TIM, with around 23m customers. In 2007, the company teamed up with Italy's postal service to offer a virtual mobile service (MVNO) under the Poste Italiane brandname. Italy contributed revenues of €6.10bn in ye 2017.

Vodafone Spain, formerly Airtel, is the local #2 behind Telefonica's Movistar, with 14.4m customers and around 20% share, more or less equal with Orange. Vodafone acquired the local broadband subsidiaries of European telecoms group Tele2 in Italy and Spain at the end of 2007, and has rolled out a heavily discounted home and mobile service in both countries. In Italy this is marketed as TeleTu. The group further expanded its broadband services in 2014 with a deal to acquire Spain's second largest cable and broadband company Ono for €7.2bn. That deal added around 2.8m local broadband customers in Spain. Combined revenues from Spain were €4.97bn for ye 2017.

The Netherlands is becoming another important European market, despite a comparatively small population. In 2016, Vodafone agreed to merge its operations there with those of cable and broadband operator Ziggo (owned by Liberty Global) to create a stronger rival to market leader KPN. It paid €1bn to maintain a 50% stake in the merged entity, which has almost 31% share of the mobile market and over 39% of broadband. Local regulators required the combined business to divest its traditional fixed line operations as a condition of approval.

Turkey, where Vodafone established a presence in 2005 through the acquisition of former state-owned Telcim, is emerging as another key market by customers, with 22.2m subscribers at March 2016. The group also controls Vodafone-branded mobile services in Albania, Greece (formerly Panafon), Hungary, Ireland (formerly Eircell), Portugal (formerly Telecel) and Romania (formerly Cbanner). Other European markets contributed revenues of €6.13bn in ye 2017. Under the proposed deal with Liberty Global, Vodafone's operations in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania would be considerably enhanced by the addition of cable TV provider UPC.

One of the big gaps in the Vodafone brand's footprint across Europe is France, where it was at one time represented through a minority 44% shareholding in SFR, the #2 operator behind France Telecom's Orange. Vodafone wrestled for years to persuade majority owner Vivendi to sell out, but with little success. Instead, it eventually sold its own shares to Vivendi in 2011 for €7bn, quitting France altogether. The group sold its operations in Sweden to local operator Telenor during 2005, and offloaded its minority stakes in Proximus of Belgium (to partner Belgacom) and Swisscom of Switzerland in 2006. Vodafone retains a minority stake in PlusGSM in Poland.

In North America Vodafone controlled a 45% shareholding in Verizon Wireless from 2000 until 2013. On paper at least it was a financially beneficial relationship - Vodafone consolidated an operating profit of £6.4bn in ye 2013 from its shareholding. However, there was for several years a degree of tension in the relationship, not least after 2005 when Verizon stopped paying a dividend in order to reduce its debt. As a result of Verizon's acquisition of rival Alltel in 2008, that policy was continued until 2012, when a dividend of $4.5bn was finally paid to Vodafone. In the past Vodafone had claimed to be comfortable with that joint venture arrangement because of the continuing enhancement of its investment, but it has been under pressure for several years from its investors to generate more cash from its stake. Indeed for several years Vodafone hankered after a branded presence of its own in the US. In 2004 shareholders groaned when they were informed that Vodafone was preparing a takeover bid for what was then AT&T Wireless, the #3 US operator. Any such purchase would also have required Vodafone to buy itself out of the Verizon joint venture, a daunting additional cost. In the end, Vodafone's $35bn bid for AT&T Wireless was topped by rival Cingular.

Subsequent tentative plans for Vodafone to buy out Verizon's share of Verizon Wireless were also abandoned as a result of cost. In early 2006, Vodafone came under pressure from some UK shareholders to sell its stake in Verizon Wireless in order to bolster its own flagging share price. Verizon also appeared keen to buy out its partner, but Vodafone's price was apparently too high. Eventually, after months of speculation, the two partners agreed to maintain their relationship, at least for the time being. However, Vodafone's shareholding in Verizon Wireless is regarded as an investment, so the group reports a share of Verizon's profits in its own accounts but not revenues. The stalemate was finally broken in summer 2013 when the two sides went back into talks to resolve the split. In what will end up as the third-largest deal in corporate history, Verizon agreed to buy back the outstanding Verizon Wireless shares for a whopping $130bn. At least $60bn of that sum was paid in cash - a corporate record - and the rest in shares in a united Verizon Communications. Vodafone shareholders ended up with around 30% of the resulting business. (At the same time, Vodafone bought out Verizon's remaining 23% stake in Vodafone Italia).

Vodafone currently has no direct presence in Latin America. It acquired a 34% shareholding in Iusacell of Mexico in 2001, but this proved an expensive failure. Iusacell failed to make a significant dent in the dominance of Mexico's market leading operator Telcel, and Vodafone sold its shares during 2003 at a loss of around $1bn.

The group's main interests in Africa are a controlling stake in Vodafone Egypt (38.5m customers) and what is now a 65% interest in South Africa's Vodacom, previously a joint venture with state-controlled fixed line operator Telkom. Vodafone increased its holding in Vodacom from 35% in 2005 at a cost of around £1.35bn. Talks in 2007 to acquire majority control ended without agreement, but were renewed the following year. Vodafone paid an additional £1.4bn to lift its holding from 50% to 65%. Vodacom has 70.4m local customers in several African countries, and generated revenues of €5.29bn in ye 2017. It is the dominant operator in South Africa with around 51% share. Also in 2008, Vodafone acquired a controlling stake in Ghana Telecom for $900m. It is the country's third largest mobile carrier, with 7.9m customers and a one-third market share, and a fixed line and broadband service.

In the Asia Pacific region it controls Vodafone Australia, the local #3 behind Telstra and Optus. In 2009, the group merged its operations in Australia with the local arm of Three in order to create a stronger rival to market leaders Telstra and Optus. Hutchison 3 and Vodafone each held 50% of the combined company. However the merger prompted a dramatic plunge in performance as the combined business was plagued by unreliable connections and complaints about poor customer service. Considerable time and money was spent improving the network and service, but an ad campaign launched in 2013 to promote that fact, with babies' heads superimposed on adult bodies, became one of the most complained about in Australian marketing history. Subscriber numbers plunged from 7.5m users in 2010 to a low of 5m by late 2013. Gradually though usage has begun to rebound, with subscriber numbers rising to around 6m by early 2018. That year, the company agreed to merge with local broadband supplier TPG Telecom, adding another 2m or so customers. Vodafone and Hutchison will jointly hold just over 50% of the combined group to TPG's 49.9%.

In 2012, Vodafone agreed to acquire New Zealand's TelstraClear, the local #2, for around $840m. The merged service is the local market leader in mobile. In 2016, it announced plans to merge with local pay-TV leader Sky TV Network to expand its range of services. However that deal was blocked by local regulators in early 2017 because it would give the combined group a monopoly of pay-TV sport.

Elsewhere in Asia, Vodafone formed a strategic alliance with China Mobile in 2000, paying $2.5bn for a 2% stake. Further share purchases increased Vodafone's stake to around 3.2% by March 2008. However, growing pressure from shareholders to streamline performance and bolster a flagging share price persuaded the group to sell those shares in a public offer in September 2010 for around $6.6bn.

Vodafone originally pulled out of the Indian market in 2003, but then re-established a presence in 2005 with the purchase of a 10% stake in Bharti Airtel, India's largest mobile operator by subscribers and one of the few with a national footprint. Two years later, Vodafone launched a bid for Bharti's rival and India's fourth largest operator, Hutch, controlled by Hutchison Whampoa of Hong Kong. That move encouraged rival offers from local operator Reliance Communications and Hutchison Essar's minority shareholder Essar Group. However Vodafone was able to snatch the prize in February 2007, agreeing to buy out Hutchison Whampoa for $11.1bn, and also assume the company's $2bn of debt. The Hutch service adopted the Vodafone brand at the end of the year. Vodafone subsequently halved its shareholding in Airtel, but the two companies agreed at the end of 2007 to pool their respective base station masts, along with those of smaller rival Idea, in a separate jointly owned company, Indus Towers. (However, Vodafone is still embroiled in a protracted row with tax regulators over a disputed $2.6bn capital gain associated with the Essar deal). Vodafone bought out Essar's remaining stake in Vodafone India in 2011 for $5bn, building its shareholding to 75%. Since then, it has steadily bought out the remaining minority shareholders in order to secure 100% of equity by mid 2014. The business has 209m customers and 23% share of India's telecoms market, narrowly behind Bharti Airtel (with 24%). Revenues were €5.85bn in ye 2017.

In early 2017, with the Indian mobile sector in turmoil following the entry of new challenger Jio, which offered free voice and data to new customers for six months, Vodafone confirmed plans to merge its Indian subsidiary with publicly quoted rival Idea Cellular. If completed, that deal will create a new local leader with nearly 400m customers and around 35% market share. Vodafone will control around 45% of equity, partnered by Idea's main shareholder Aditya Birla Group with 26%. Most of the remaining shares will be publicly owned.

Until 2006, the group's biggest market by revenues but weakest by performance, was Japan, which Vodafone entered through the acquisition of controlling stakes in local operators Japan Telecom and J-Phone. But as a foreign-owned business, Vodafone Japan had great difficulty establishing itself in a country dominated by local operators NTT DoCoMo and KDDI, and subscriber numbers remained flat despite a growing market. In 2006, Vodafone finally called it quits, and agreed to sell the business to Japanese group Softbank for £8.9bn in cash and shares. It announced plans to cash in its remaining shares in Softbank in 2010 and 2012 for a combined total of around £3bn.

Financials

For the year ending March 2013, Vodafone's revenues slipped back by 4% to £44.4bn partly as a result of currency fluctuation, but also declining revenues from economically challenged Southern Europe. Bottom line has been mercurial for several years, dented by depreciation and other non-cash charges. It steadily improved after 2007 as the after-effects of expensive past acquisitions faded, with pretax profits reaching £9.55bn in ye 2012, partly as a result of a sizeable gain from the sale of its SFR shares. But poor performance in Southern Europe prompted another sizeable impairment charge in ye 2013, prompting a sharp fall in pretax profits to £3.26bn, and net profit of just £673m. Excluding charges, EBITDA was down 8% year-on-year. Germany was the group's biggest market by both revenues and profits, followed by South Africa. The UK was the #3 market by revenues followed by Italy and India.

For the year to March 2014, the huge payout for Vodafone's Verizon Wireless shares resulted in an exceptional net profit of £59.42bn, more even than revenues, which slipped by almost 2% to £43.62bn. However the group once again pushed through a host of charges, including an additional £6.6bn impairment against its operations in continental Europe. Once again EBITDA slipped back, this time by almost 5%, to £11.08bn. Net debt fell from a hefty £25bn in ye 2013 to £13.7bn.

For the year to March 2015, reported revenues dipped to £42.23bn. Comparable growth, stripping out divestments and adjustments, was 10%, entirely as a result of currencies. On an organic basis, revenues were down almost 1%. Mobile accounted for 76% of service revenues, and fixed line for 20%. Without the Verizon payout, net profits plunged to £5.92bn, though that figure also included a variety of one-off accounting items. On an adjusted basis reflecting actual performance, EBITDA rose 8% to £11.92bn. Net debt was back in ascendant again as a result of the acquisitions of Ono and KDG other items, reaching £22.3bn.

In the year to March 2016, Vodafone finally delivered its first annual organic growth in both revenues and core earnings since 2008. Reported revenues slipped another 3% on exchange rates to £41.0bn, yet organic growth at constant rates was up over 2%. EBITDA was up almost 3% on an organic basis, but fell 2.5% as reported at £11.61bn. Another round of negative tax adjustments and revaluations caused the bottom line to fall to a net loss of £3.82bn, while net debt rose to £29.2bn.

To reflect the importance of the Euro zone as its core market, Vodafone swapped currencies in the year ending 2017 to Euros. For that financial year, reported revenues slipped back on a comparable basis to €47.63bn. On an organic basis, the increase was just over 1%. However, bottom line was impacted by yet another collection of charges and adjustments, as well as a massive write-off against Vodafone/Idea Cellular in India to reflect Vodafone's reduced shareholding. These resulted in a net loss after tax of €6.08bn. Adjust operating profit excluding charges was up 8% to €4.13bn.

Background

In 1982 Gerald Whent, chief executive of the radio division of British electronics company Racal, persuaded his group's board to bid for one of the first UK cellular licenses then being offered by the government. Other electronics companies were dismissing cellular telephony as a passing fad, but Racal's bid was successful. A new division, Racal Telecomms, was set up to operate the service, which launched as Vodafone on January 1st 1985. Rival Cellnet, originally a joint venture between BT and Securicor, launched a few weeks later. Initially Vodafone's service was limited to major urban centres, it was expensive, and the phones themselves were extremely bulky, around the size of a small briefcase. However by the end of that year, coverage had spread to cover much of the UK, and the company had signed up 19,000 users. That number had more than tripled by the end of 1986, rising again in 1987 to 136,000 subscribers, giving Vodafone more users than any other mobile phone company worldwide at the time.

In 1988, Racal floated off a 20% shareholding in its Racal Telecomms subsidiary, which was already generating over a third of the group's profits. Three years later Racal Telecomms, now renamed Vodafone Group, was fully demerged as a standalone business, with just under 700,000 customers. That year saw another important development with the formation of the first international roaming agreement, with Telecom Finland. In 1993, the company's userbase topped 1m for the first time, despite the arrival of a third competitor, One2One, backed by Cable & Wireless. Another rival, Orange, followed in 1994. With a commanding lead already established in the UK, Vodafone concentrated on the international market, forging roaming alliances with a number of other international operators. The company also joined with other companies to bid for new licenses in countries as diverse as South Africa, Greece and Fiji. In the UK, the group opened its first high street retail outlet, and signed distribution and resale agreements with Comet and other electronics retailers. Customer numbers soared, hitting 3.2m by the end of 1997, then almost 4.9m by the end of 1998. Meanwhile the group's various affiliated companies and international partnerships added almost a further 5m customers worldwide. Also in 1998, Chris Gent, the managing director of the company's UK network, was promoted to become chief executive of the group, replacing Gerald Whent.

Gent presided over the most dramatic transformation in Vodafone's corporate profile. In 1999, he launched an audacious bid to acquire AirTouch Communications, then the leading independent US mobile service. This business had begun life as PacTel, the paging operation of Pacific Telesis, one of the "Baby Bell" companies spun off from Bell Telephone in 1984. During the 1980s, PacTel had begun adding international interests to its portfolio, including stakes in German cellular service Mannesman Mobilfunk and Japanese international call operator IDC. This led to a number of deals to provide technology and support services to cellular operators all over the globe, and in 1993 the company became one of the core founders of the Globalstar satellite communications project. PacTel went public in 1994 as AirTouch Communications, and began a series of moves to grow from the #5 to #1 US cellular service. These included the takeover of rival Cellular Communications, and the purchase in stages of the various cellular businesses of USWest, later to become MediaOne. The purchase of the latter's NewVector operations in 1998 made AirTouch the #2 US service after AT&T Wireless, with a predominantly West Coast service.

At the beginning of 1999, Bell Atlantic offered $45bn to acquire AirTouch and merge the two companies' operations. Bell Atlantic had a substantial mobile operation of its own, concentrated on the East coast of the US. Vodafone, keen to establish a presence in the US market, topped that offer with a bid of $60bn. Just three months later, the newly enlarged Vodafone Airtouch agreed a revised deal to merge with Bell Atlantic. The company was expanded still further by Bell Atlantic's subsequent acquisition of GTE Corp, and Vodafone's purchase of CommNet Cellular for $1.4bn. Following Bell Atlantic/GTE's rebranding as Verizon Communications, the whole mobile business was spun off in 2000 as Verizon Wireless, a 55/45 joint venture between Verizon and Vodafone.

But Vodafone had an even bigger target in its sights. Germany's industrial and telecommunications behemoth Mannesman had already undergone a series of profound changes since it was formed in 1885 to exploit a unique process for creating seamless steel tubes from single ingots. The Mannesman brothers Max and Reinhard sold out in 1900, and the company later expanded its operations globally, adding extensive mining and smelting operations to produce the raw materials needed to make its tubes. By the start of World War II, Mannesman was one of Germany's foremost industrial powers. It was carved up by the Allies in 1945, but reunited 10 years later, moving into hydraulics and automobile parts. The company's venture into mobile phone service in 1989 was a major diversification, but one that served it well when cheap steel imports from Asia severely damaged the core tube business. Mannesman Mobilfunk gradually became one of the group's core businesses and it was the first German mobile operator to post a profit in 1994. Between 1996 and 1998, Mannesman extended its interests with stakes in Italy's mobile service Omnitel, French carrier Cegetel and Austria's tele.ring. When Olivetti, its partner in Omnitel, was forced to sell off its own telephone interests as part of the deal to acquire Telecom Italia, Mannesman took control of Omnitel as well as Olivetti's fixed line service Infostrada.

Until 1999, Mannesman had coexisted happily in the international cellular industry alongside Vodafone. But that year, the German company agreed to purchase UK mobile service Orange from Hutchison Whampoa. Vodafone perceived this move into the UK market as a distinct threat to its own operations there, and mounted an audacious takeover bid. A friendly offer was rejected, so Vodafone went hostile towards the end of the year, offering £79bn in stock for the German company. After several months of batting off a series of increasing bids, the Mannesman board was finally forced to surrender and agreed to accept a record bid of £105bn in February 2000. The acquisition of Mannesman brought with it a wide collection of interests in other mobile and fixed line services, as well as a host of industrial subsidiaries. Vodafone spent the next year or two selling off most of these unwanted parts. To comply with regulators, Orange was sold to France Telecom in June 2000 for around $37bn. Italian power company Enel agreed to buy Italian fixed line service Infostrada, which was merged into their Wind joint venture with France Telecom.

Also during 2000, the group boosted its holding in Spain's second largest mobile phone operator Airtel from 21% to almost 74%, outmanoeuvring BT which was also negotiating to acquire control. In 2001 Vodafone agreed to buy 15% of Japan Telecom, Japan's third largest telecommunications operator, for $2.2bn, then the second-largest ever foreign investment in the country. A few weeks later, the group bought out AT&T's 10% stake to become the Japanese company's biggest shareholder with 25%. Vodafone already owned a stake in JT's mobile subsidiary J-Phone. The deal placed Vodafone once again in a battle for control with BT, who had a 20% stake. Already struggling with other problems, BT eventually threw in the towel, agreeing to sell Vodafone its minority stakes in both Japan Telecom and J-Phone, as well as Airtel. Also that year, Vodafone acquired leading Irish mobile service Eircell, a 25% in Swisscom, and just over a third of Iusacell, Mexico's second largest mobile operator.

The group reported a staggering £8.1bn loss for the year to 2001, largely as a result of the non-cash write-down of asset values. However sales were up 29% at £21.4bn, and the company still boasted a stronger balance sheet than any of its competitors, with debts well-covered by assets. During 2002 the group began the daunting task of consolidating its mammoth portfolio of different brands. The Vodafone brand name was gradually rolled out to the various wholly controlled subsidiaries around the world, while efforts were stepped up to buy control of other part-owned businesses. France proved the difficult market. Vodafone bought out Vivendi's share of their loss-making multimedia joint venture Vizzavi in 2002, but attempts to capture a controlling shareholding in SFR and Cegetel were continually blocked by the French group. In Japan, Vodafone steadily increased its holding in J-Phone and Japan Telecom before merging them and selling off the fixed line business (as Japan Telecom). In a similar process the group steadily bought out its partners in a series of other markets, including Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Portugal and Greece.

Having successfully built Vodafone into the world's biggest mobile phone company Chris Gent stepped down as CEO in July 2003, although he retained the title of life president. Meanwhile the group strengthened its hold on its UK customers, absorbing two service suppliers, Project Telecom and Singlepoint. However performance slowed considerably over the following two years. Incoming CEO Arun Sarin attempted to stamp his authority on the business by removing several directors associated with his predecessor. However the announcement of huge impairment losses for 2006, as well as widespread rumours of simmering tensions within the executive team, provided a catalyst to growing dissatisfaction among shareholders over the group's sagging share price. Following Sarin's removal of marketing director Peter Bamford, press reports suggested that Chris Gent had become the focal point of a "whispering campaign" within the boardroom against Sarin. Gent strongly denied this and resigned his position as director and life president of the company. Chairman Lord McLaurin moved quickly to attempt to dispel concern, putting his full support behind Sarin and denying any boardroom rift. However the pressure continued through the summer, and Sarin narrowly survived an attempt to vote him off the group board at the Vodafone AGM. McLaurin stepped down as group chairman in 2006 and was replaced by Sir John Bond, former executive chairman of HSBC. Arun Sarin stepped down as CEO of Vodafone at the end of July 2008, and was replaced by Vittorio Colao, previously CEO, western Europe and deputy group CEO.

During 2007 Vodafone was shut out of deals to offer exclusive access to Apple's iPhone handset in key European markets, although it attempted unsuccessfully to challenge the deal agreed in Germany between Apple and T-Mobile. The following year, however, the company was able to secure rights to offer iPhone in several other countries including Australia, Italy, India, the Czech Republic and South Africa. Later, Apple lifted its exclusivity contracts allowing Vodafone to supply the iPhone in all its markets.

Last full revision 30th October 2017

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