At least one former university classmate of Swedish media and telecom mogul Jan Stenbeck will never forget him. At a party one night in the 1960s, she took off her shoes to dance. Stenbeck grabbed one, saying he would drink champagne from her slipper. But instead, he poured punsch, a sticky-sweet liqueur into the shoe, ruining it. Forty years later, the classmate still can't help fuming.
Stenbeck, 58, is still honing his reputation as Sweden's enfant terrible and is a prime example of the entrepreneurial energy Europe can produce. He often throws wild parties at a bar he owns on Stockholm's waterfront. He doesn't try to court Sweden's Establishment. Yet he has gained respect from his rivals for his flair as one of Sweden's most daring executives. Stenbeck made his name by rebuilding his old-line, family-controlled, steel and forest conglomerate into a telecom and media empire--then using it to challenge Telia (TLAAF), the state-owned telecom monopoly until it was privatized in 2000. Today, Stenbeck's $3 billion group is Sweden's No. 2 teleco, after Telia. His Kinnevik group (KVIKA) controls assets ranging from newspapers and TV, radio, and satellite broadcasting to cellular phone, fixed-line phones, and Internet access services.
Stenbeck's biggest coup came last year, when the government rejected Telia's bid for one of Sweden's four licenses to build third-generation mobile phone networks. Stenbeck persuaded the government to accept his plan for 3G. Having won the license for his Tele2 phone company, he agreed to share it with Telia. That deal gives him access to Telia's $150 million in cash and its 11.5 million customers. And it left no doubt about who holds the balance of power in the Swedish telecom industry. Tele2 saw its net income rise 20% last year, to $275 million on sales of $1.6 billion. Stenbeck's media business, Modern Times Group (MTGNY), which owns publishing and broadcasting companies, posted an operating profit of $45 million on sales of $543 million. Share prices haven't done as well: Tele2's stock has dropped 37% in the past year as telecom shares across Europe have plunged. MTG is down 30%.
Even so, Stenbeck remains one of Sweden's wealthiest people: He's worth some $800 million. A graduate of Harvard Business School, Stenbeck has a reputation for ruthlessness. He's known for giving managers freedom, but he's quick to fire them if their ideas don't generate profit. "When things go well, he's very inspiring. But when they don't, it's not so entertaining," says Lars-Johan Jarnheimer, chief executive for Tele2, who has managed to survive the tough times.
While he likes to party, Stenbeck is notoriously shy for a media mogul. He's grooming daughter Cristina, 25, to take over. Now working as her father's assistant in New York, she may soon become the corporation's public face. But Stenbeck has a lot of wheeling and dealing left in him.