Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao stresses importance of continuity ahead of departure

Vittorio Colao’s departure as Vodafone Group CEO was a surprise to just about everybody, not least  investors, as the drop in the company’s share price in the aftermath of the announcement testifies.

The Italian says it was a difficult decision but believes the Newbury-based firm is in good hands as it enters a new phase of its history. Continuity is something he reiterates several times during a meeting with the media in the City of London, just a few hours after his departure was confirmed.

Joined by his successor and current CFO Nick Read, and his replacement Margherita Della Valle, Colao explains that being part of being a strong leader is to nurture talent within an organisation, something he believes he has done during his ten-year tenure as chief executive.

Handing over control

During that period, Colao has navigated tricky regulatory waters and declining European revenues to transform Vodafone from a pure-play mobile operator into what could become a leader in converged networks.

The £19 billion Project Spring investment programme has seen it expand 4G coverage across Europe, while it has built and invested in superfast broadband across the continent. Meanwhile, it sold its 45 per cent stake in US giant Verizon Wireless for £90 million back in 2014.

Colao says he has no regrets, including not completing a possible takeover of Virgin Media, which he says was never on the agenda. What is clear is that the Vodafone he hands over to Read is in better shape then the one he inherited back in 2008.

“[I’ve had] ten amazing years as CEO and 20 [overall] with this amazing company,” he says. “In all cases, you need to be sure you have a great team for the next step of the journey.”

Vodafone’s board looked at other candidates before deciding on Read, who joined Vodafone in 2001 as UK Finance Director and was UK CEO before his rise to Group CFO in 2014. His initial priority will be to execute the changes initiated by Colao – even if the Italian quipped a more pressing concern would be the broken air conditioning in the chief executive’s office.

Converged champion

Only last week, Colao reached an €18.6 billion agreement with Liberty Global to acquire its cable networks in Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania – the largest acquisition of his reign - and last year, he reached a deal to merge Vodafone’s Indian business.

Colao denies that his departure is linked in that he waited until he completed the deals to cement his legacy, although he adds he feels he has a duty to do everything he can to help both deals be successful before he leaves in October - including negotiations with regulators.

Vodafone and Colao are adamant that the Liberty Global deal does not negatively impact competition, especially in Germany, and will instead help Europe when it comes to convergence and 5G.

“We’re moving to a new chapter and just started doing transformational things like Liberty Global and India,” he says. “We’ve got to get the clearance, integrate and find the synergies.

“For years we heard that Europe wanted pan-European telcos that can compete on full range of services everywhere. This is what we are delivering today and I expect this to be applauded as something stable and competitive.

“We are the biggest in Europe, but not in individual countries. We are a European champion but a challenger in countries everywhere except maybe Ireland.

“Will competitors be against us? Of course – if they want to be against competition and freedom of choice.”

His future and Brexit

As for Colao’s future, that is less clear.

“I’ve been incredibly busy. The honest answer is I don’t know,” he says. “I haven’t’ had time [to think] and I’m sure I’ll be busy over the coming months.”

Colao will be staying in the UK however: “My family is here and my children are in school. I think it was the first thing my children asked me, ‘are we staying?’”

Indeed, he is optimistic about the future of the UK technology market, but as a “proud European” and supporter of Britain he warns that it must get Brexit right.

“The potential of the right mix of incentives, immigration [policies] and academia … It’s an amazing place,” he says. “The potential is still there but we need to get Brexit right, [otherwise] it misses an opportunity.

“We need to get visas and [the free flow of] data right.”

“We have no plans to move HQ to Germany but we have the opportunity in the coming years to bring assets there. Does the UK have the potential to compete for that? Of course it does. But Berlin, Lisbon [and others can too].”

“Britain has an opportunity here. I really think we should get it right.”

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.