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Activist Investor Cevian Builds Stake in Vodafone

By Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Activist investor Cevian Capital AB has built a stake in British telecommunications giant Vodafone Group Plc, people familiar with the matter said.

The Swedish investment firm has been in talks with Vodafone officials in recent months as it pushes the carrier to improve performance, the people said, asking not to be identified because the information is private.

Options to boost value at Vodafone could include consolidating its presence in key markets, selling some operations or pursuing stock buybacks, the people said. Representatives for Cevian and Vodafone declined to comment.

Vodafone shares gained 1.2% in London trading Friday, giving it a market value of 34.5 billion pounds ($46.2 billion). The company’s American depositary receipts rose 5.8%.

Cevian’s move comes as fellow activist investors increasing target some of the U. K.’s largest companies as investors grow impatient for returns. Those under the spotlight now include Unilever Plc, GlaxoSmithKline Plc and Shell Plc.

Sprawling Portfolio

Vodafone oversees a sprawling portfolio across more than 20 countries serving over 300 million wireless customers. Its European operations include units in the U. K., Germany, Italy and Spain. Vodafone is also a major player in sub-Saharan Africa and has a joint venture in India.

Chief Executive Officer Nick Read talked up Vodafone’s hunt to strike deals to consolidate in its “major European markets” at the time of its results announcement in November. Vodafone expressed interest late last year in acquiring CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd.’s Three UK unit, Bloomberg News reported this month.

Separately, Vodafone has also held preliminary discussions with Deutsche Telekom AG about a potential merger of their wireless tower businesses, people familiar with the matter have said.

Cevian typically eschews public fights, at least at first, and instead builds up a stake large enough to ensure that management is obliged to listen as it presses for change. If behind-the-scenes lobbying doesn’t work, Cevian goes public with its critique.

Cevian’s Targets

The activist’s previous targets in the London market have included Old Mutual, Aviva Plc and RSA Insurance Group. With Cevian as a shareholder, Aviva sold non-core assets and RSA Insurance accepted a takeover offer. Cevian is currently pushing for changes at telecom equipment maker Ericsson AB.

Last year, Cevian sold just under half of its holdings in Thyssenkrupp AG, cashing in on a recovery in the steelmaker’s shares after years of stalled attempts at restructuring. It also stepped up pressure ABB Ltd.

This month, Cevian praised a proposed appointment of Stephen Hester as chairman Nordea Bank Abp, where it’s a shareholder.

(Updates with activist campaigns in fifth paragraph)

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