French billionaire Xavier Niel, who is best known in Ireland for his control of Eir, has bought a 2.5% stake in Vodafone, increasing the pressure on management at the British telecoms giant.
Vodafone has been under pressure to test Europe's appetite for telecom takeovers after creating expectations by saying the group was pursuing mergers with rivals in multiple European markets — prospects that have not yet materialised.
Mr Niel, the founder and owner of telecoms maverick Iliad, already has a track record of shaking up corporate strategy and governance.
"He's probably attempting to agitate right now on his own," a telecoms analyst said, requesting anonymity.
"But if he becomes the sort of catalyst for other shareholders who are unhappy with the level of activity and the momentum of the company, it might sort of emulate some ... upsurge in activist activity."
Vodafone declined to comment on Mr Niel's investment. "We continue to actively pursue opportunities with Vantage Towers and to strengthen our market positions in Europe," it said.
Mr Niel has bought his 2.5% stake in Vodafone through an investment vehicle. The vehicle — Atlas Investissement — said Vodafone was an "attractive investment opportunity, as per the quality of its assets portfolio and the solid underlying trends in the global telecommunications sector". Shares in Vodafone rose 2%.
Vodafone in February rejected an offer of more than €11bn for its Italian business from Iliad and Apax Partners, saying it was not in the best interest of its shareholders.
Including his 2018 ownership of Eir, Mr Niel has telecoms investments in nine countries in Europe with nearly 50m subscribers.