LONDON, June 7 — The Vodafone Group, the world’s largest cellphone company, said on Thursday that it had received a letter from a group of shareholders asking it to return as much as £38 billion ($75 billion) to investors in part by spinning off its stake in Verizon Wireless.
In the latest effort by minority shareholders to influence management decisions, a little-known group of investors, Efficient Capital Structures, suggested that Vodafone give its investors tracking shares representing the company’s 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless, the American cellular carrier; increase borrowing as a way to return more money to shareholders; and ask the permission of shareholders before making any large acquisitions.
Vodafone rejected the proposals late Thursday, saying that they would not be in the best interest of shareholders. Yet, the company may still have to take the suggestions to the agenda of its annual shareholder meeting on July 24, because Efficient Capital Structures said that it owned enough shares to force the issue. Yet several analysts backed management, saying the suggestions were weak.
“This is not a serious enough slate of suggestions to create more than headlines,” Terence Sinclair, an analyst at Citigroup in London, wrote in a note to his clients.
An analyst at Goldman Sachs in London, Simon Weeden, said that he did not expect the claims to be taken seriously and that a spinoff of Vodafone’s stake in Verizon Wireless would create complex tax issues and would dilute shareholder rights.
An increasing number of companies — including ABN Amro, the Dutch bank, and Cadbury Schweppes, the British candy and beverage maker — found themselves confronted with activist investors, who built small stakes with the aim to influence management. Efficient Capital Structures said that its actions were not hostile or aggressive and that it did not seek to replace Vodafone’s management.
Vodafone canceled a meeting with the shareholder group on Thursday because the letter had been leaked to the media and said it was reviewing the suggestions.
Efficient Capital Structures is led by Glenn Cooper, the investment banker who brought Manchester United, the soccer club, to the stock market in 1990, and backed by John Mayo, a former executive of Marconi who played a role in the collapse of the telecommunications firm six years ago. They hold less than 0.5 percent of Vodafone’s shares.
“It’s certainly the current trend for smaller shareholders and hedge funds to force sales and spinoffs, and there is a rationale for a short-term return, but Vodafone has more potential to be strong in the future as a whole,” said Boris Boehm, a fund manager at Nordinvest in Hamburg, whose investments also include Vodafone.
Vodafone just recently started to regain shareholder confidence after a failed acquisition attempt in America and shareholder criticism that the company lacked a plan to offset slowing growth in Europe.
It sold its struggling Japanese business and minority holdings in Switzerland and Belgium last year, and in February agreed to buy a controlling stake in Hutchison Essar, the Indian mobile phone company, gaining access to that fast-growing market.