Has the self-publicizing billionaire's trademark grin morphed into a power sneer? If so, Sir Richard Branson might be forgiven for relishing the control he now holds over the future of NTL Group.

Since NTL's £961 million ($1.81bn; €1.41bn) friendly acquisition of Virgin Mobile in July, the common man's favourite capitalist is now the US-owned cable group's largest single shareholder with a stake of 10.5%.

And as four US private equity firms circle the struggling cable operator awaiting a response to their £10bn-plus bid [WAMN: 16-Aug-06], Branson sits holding the reins and uncharacteristically remaining silent.

The perma-grinned knight is contractually entitled to vote his shares against any change of control, even in defiance of the rest of the NTL board. Conversely, however, he can't offer his shares to any buyer if that deal is opposed by NTL.

The quartet of circling predators comprise Providence Equity Partners, Blackstone, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Cinven, who approached senior NTL executives shortly after the group's less-than-sparkling Q2 results earlier this month.

Although his master's lip were firmly zipped a Virgin Group spokesman denied the company had received any approach about its stake in NTL. "We have been shareholders in this business for a month and we have not had any approaches," claimed the minion.

Data sourced from Financial Times Online; additional content by WARC staff