Vodafone CEO Will Step Down Earlier Than Expected

British wireless giant Vodafone ( VOD) said Chief Executive Sir Christopher Gent will step down in July, marking the unexpectedly early departure of yet another bubble-era executive.

Gent, who engineered a multibillion-dollar acquisition binge for Vodafone, follows in the footsteps of other telecom chiefs who have resigned or have been ousted this year. They include chief executives of Deutsche Telekom ( DT) and Cingular Wireless. Gent was expected to retire within two to three years, analysts said.

The company tapped wireless industry veteran Arun Sarin, an American executive and Vodafone board member, to replace Gent. Sarin was AirTouch Communications' chief executive and helped negotiate Vodafone's $43 billion acquisition of AirTouch in 1999. Sarin is currently chief executive of telecom investment group Accel/KKR Telecom.

Some U.K.-based analysts applauded the succession. Commerzbank Securities analyst John Karidis, for one, said, "Under Mr. Sarin's stewardship, we believe Vodafone is more likely to focus on extracting more value from the group's existing asset base rather than look to acquire more assets. As such, we believe it is now less likely that Vodafone will waste its cash flow from operations on overpriced acquisitions." Karidis raised his rating on the company to hold from reduce.

Still, shares of Vodafone's American depositary receipts dropped 25 cents, or 1.4%, to $17.85 in morning trading.

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