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Lining Vittorio Colao’s wall in Vodafone’s London headquarters are pictures of him as a football player, in ceremonial uniform as an officer in the Carabinieri and, perhaps most strikingly, superimposed as the gun-toting leader of 1980s TV heroes the A-Team.

“It perhaps implies that I am still a bit militaristic in my management style,” he says with a smile.

Colao is indeed from a family with a tradition in Italy’s military police, but the rangy 51-year-old was never tempted to follow suit, in spite of a year and a half of service sandwiched between his studies at Bocconi, the prominent Milanese private university for business and management. While leaping from helicopters in the Alps was fun, he says, running businesses is more exciting.

Bocconi, where he earned a business degree cum laude, provided the “hard wiring of the basics of business and economics” that eventually led to him becoming chief executive of Vodafone Group in 2008 – some years after he was first tipped for a role that instead went to his friend, Arun Sarin.

“It is right to have a rigorous, academic, hard-wiring of basic competence,” he says. “At the end of the day, if you don’t learn well mathematics, statistics, economics, accounting, including double entry and book-keeping early, then common business sense is built on weak foundations. Once you have this good basis you have a framework for interpreting the world.”

Colao now sits on the advisory board of Bocconi, a position he took with a view that the university should stick to core principles even as it adopts new topics of modern business such as fashion and green industries. He says that the advantage of being privately owned is that the syllabus is dictated by what works, not just the traditional business school curriculum.

In recent years, this has meant extending a policy of overseas learning that was in its infancy when Colao was there – taking him on rewarding visits to France and the US at a time when such study was uncommon – and an emphasis on experience rather than exam results.

“Bocconi has always been at the forefront of what they think will be the requirements of the education of young managers,” says Colao, who also has an MBA from Harvard Business School. “Being private, they can experiment much more.”

Bocconi has become a symbol of progressive modern Italy. It has trained generations of Italian industrialists, award-winning economists and politicians, not least Mario Monti, the prime minister charged with dragging Italy through the financial crisis.

Colao, who still holds an Italian passport and has a house in the country although he is based in London, says that Monti is the right man for a difficult job, “not just because he is from Bocconi but also because he is from Bocconi”.

“Monti has the good side of Bocconi spirit which is facts, moderate views and firm principles,” he says. “Italy needs radical reforms to be conducted in a moderate consensus-driven way.”

Even with such illustrious alumni, Colao says that Bocconi has never been an elite club in the way the Ivy League works in the US. He disdains the sort of nepotistic cliques that this can generate, although acknowledges the importance of creating networks around business life.

Bocconi is a meritocratic “factory for the elite, intellectually”, he says, a role in Italian society that has changed little in the 110 years since the university’s doors first opened.

“Bocconi is elite in terms of requirements from its students but it is not a club thing,” he says. “It takes in students from the south, from the north; people from an entrepreneurial background and people like me who come from no such thing.”

Indeed, Colao does not place too much importance on the fame of a university when gauging potential recruits. He instead looks at a range of factors, the key ones falling under an easy-to-remember checklist of MIA: motivation, interests and ambition.

“Of course, a good high-level business education gives me confidence that the basics are good, but I also look for variety of experience and interests. I look for sports and social commitments and involvements. I look for the human motivations.”

Motivation and entrepreneurial drive are not easily taught, he says, although a good business education can help create the framework for success.

“There are a lot of entrepreneurs that have gone to Bocconi because they come from entrepreneurial families or because Italy is full of small entrepreneurs. You can’t really teach it but you can help people understand that context of successful entrepreneurship or see the traps and risks.”

After Bocconi, Colao’s own undoubtedly keen ambitions were formed when he became a partner at McKinsey, the consultancy that has worked with a number of well-known Italian entrepreneurs. The most crucial of these relationships proved to be with Carlo De Benedetti, who gave Colao his first opportunity by asking him to help start a mobile telephony venture within Olivetti, the Italian telecommunications company. Omnitel, the Olivetti-owned mobile operator, was the first rival to the national monopoly businesses. It was here that Colao caught the excitement of starting up and leading a business to success.

“People thought this [mobile telecoms] could be interesting for about 10 per cent of the population,” he says with a smile. “The McKinsey people told me I was crazy, that it was a risky venture full of debt that would go down but I said we will try it and it will be fun. It was probably the best experience of my life.”

Colao, who became chief executive of Omnitel in 1999, was among staff subsumed into Vodafone Italy as part of the takeover of Mannesmann, the German engineering group. In spite of becoming the regional chief executive and a member of the main Vodafone board in 2002, he missed out on the group chief executive role, and so joined Italian media group RCS as chief executive in 2004. He still has a copy on his wall of the bestselling issue of one of its previous titles, La Gazzetta dello Sport, celebrating the Italian world cup victory in 2006.

Colao rejoined Vodafone two years later as the European chief executive following a disagreement with major shareholders over RCS’s strategy, and succeeded Sarin as chief executive in 2008 amid rumours that he had been offered the top job at Telecom Italia.

He describes the role as “one of the best jobs in Europe”, playing down speculation of an invitation to become involved in Italian politics, even if he seems wistful for his time leading more entrepreneurial ventures.

“There is nothing like a start-up,” he says. “You work an enormous amount of hours, you make mistakes, you do things wrong, take decisions too quickly, but you see the company growing, and people growing, and change roles at a speed in which a normal company would never see.”

But while he has never been motivated by size of balance sheet, he says larger companies can offer different, but equally rewarding, challenges. “When we were a tiny lossmaking company in Italy it was fantastic as we were fixing problems and bringing people in and getting new facilities and opening stuff. Then it becomes fantastic when you are multinational and you are fixing problems around the world.”

In the recent past, this has included dealing with challenges as diverse as navigating the politics of the deposed authoritarian regime in Egypt during the revolution to buying Cable & Wireless Worldwide in the UK.

Colao says he is “super happy” at Vodafone, which provides a wide vista given its international reach and importance within national infrastructure debates as well as smaller-scale domestic issues raised by its individual country units. He will have visited 34 cities in the Vodafone network between August and December, if sometimes for only a day or so.

Relationships are key to Colao, whether it be with the Vodafone customer base, the politicians who want the telecoms group to commit to infrastructure projects or its now mostly happy shareholder base.

“I have my hands full,” he says. “Telecoms is an essential infrastructure for development and future of Europe. But I still want to be in touch with people.”

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