Johannesburg: Phuthuma Nhleko, chief executive of South Africa’s MTN since 2002, is one of the country’s best-known black businessmen and may be eyeing the top position if his company ties up with India’s Bharti Airtel Services Ltd.

Astute dealmaker: Chief.executive officer of MTN Phuthuma Nhleko.

“I am sure Phuthuma wouldn’t want to disappear off the scene. I think he is still probably ambitious and wants to be involved and possibly wants to lead any combined group as CEO," said Rajay Ambekar, a portfolio manager at Cadiz African Harvest.

MTN, with a 290 billion rand (Rs1.65 trillion) market capitalization, operates in countries in east, central and west Africa such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Zambia and Uganda. Under Nhleko, it has also pushed into Iran, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan as well as Cyprus. Given its penetration in many difficult markets and hefty market value, analysts believe Nhleko is unlikely to allow MTN to go cheaply.

And if Bharti Airtel or any suitor is prepared to pay a premium to buy a stake in MTN, Nhleko and his top five management team stand to make a bundle. Nhleko and four other executive directors own 26% of Newshelf 664, a management and staff-owned vehicle, which in turn owns 13.09% of MTN.

The directors’ stake is valued at nearly 10 billion rand and Nhleko’s share is worth about 2.9 billion rand.

Nhleko is an astute dealmaker and spearheaded MTN’s acquisition of Investcom in 2006, the 11th biggest merger and acquisition deal in South Africa since 1991.

He has been instrumental in transforming MTN from the second largest mobile group in South Africa into sub-Saharan Africa’s top player, while the acquisition of Investcom brought a substantial presence in West Asia.

But despite all the international growth, MTN remains No. 2 in its home country, where Vodacom has more subscribers.

Before joining MTN, soft-spoken and media-shy Nhleko was CEO of Worldwide Africa Investment.

He established Worldwide Africa Investments after a stint in corporate finance at Standard Bank, where he sharpened his dealmaking skills.

Away from deals, Nhleko relaxes by reading and listening to jazz. He holds an MBA from Atlanta University and a civil engineering degree from Ohio State University.