Abigail Townsend: From the top of his game to the end of his tether

Two tough-talking chiefs: it worked at BAA, it's a gamble at Eurotunnel
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The Independent Online

Here's a tale of two chief executives. One is Mike Clasper, who last week stepped down after steering BAA through a £10.1bn hostile takeover battle. The other is Jacques Gounon, the executive chairman of Euro- tunnel, who is locked in a bitter standoff with creditors.

First Mr Clasper, who must be leaving BAA feeling rather pleased with himself. When Ferrovial launched an unsolicited 810p-a-share bid for the owner of Heathrow and Gat-wick airports, his response was swift: not interested. Both sides cranked up their advisers, briefing hard about how they should be in charge. Valuations rose, others joined the fray, and still BAA said no. Until, that is, Ferrovial upped its offer by £1.35bn. Which was when, strangely enough, the Spanish Armada suddenly didn't seem so bad and the deal was done.

Mr Clasper knew BAA would probably be sold, and I doubt he cared who to. But quite rightly he did care what price was fetched for the business he ran on behalf of its owners - the investors. He kept the interest going and got more than £10bn. I doubt he'll have much problem finding a new job.

And so to Mr Gounon. There is little light at the end of this tunnel - the tortuous attempt to restructure the debt-laden Channel Tunnel operator - and last week he appeared to snap. After just 36 hours of talks with the bondholders, who are unhappy with the restructuring deal that Mr Gounon has put before them, he put Eurotunnel into bankruptcy protection.

At a press conference, he announced that staff and suppliers would be fine; the only people who would suffer were the creditors. It was the very opposite of the Entente Cordiale: French board faces down largely Anglo-Saxon creditors.

So while Mr Clasper was playing the waiting game and quietly orchestrating a sale, Mr Gounon was evidently being driven to despair.

But was he right to abandon talks in favour of bankruptcy protection? There have been deadlines in the past, all of which have been broken, and he was clearly not prepared to see another one missed.

Whether it will help is another matter. The French bankruptcy law is new and largely untested, and adding to the confusion is the question of whether the company is insolvent. Mr Gounon says that without the restructuring, there is no chance of rescuing Eurotunnel before its cash runs out in January. Et voilà, insolvent. Others can't help but ponder how a company with cash, deal or no deal, can be called insolvent.

Mr Gounon cannot be blamed for taking the measures he thinks best. He is a well-regarded, experienced executive. So there can be little doubt that he also knows that the group at risk here is not bondholders, staff or suppliers but the shareholders. The deal that will eventually be done - and make no mistake, one will be done - could leave them with less than 1 per cent of the company. Not quite £10.1bn, is it?

A note of discord

There cannot be a businessman out there who did not re-read the Sony BMG news, just to check they hadn't dreamt it.

One of Europe's highest courts has backed a challenge by independent music companies that the European Commission was wrong to allow the 2004 merger to go ahead. The regulator, if it does not appeal, will now have to launch another probe into the tie-up, meaning the merged group could be forced to split.

That is worrying. Analogies like "marriage" are often used to describe deals, but this would be no quickie, or cheap, divorce.

But then the court did not rule on the merger, rather the Commission's findings about it. And it is right that the regulator is as much scrutinised as the companies it reigns over.

So it may be bad news for Sony BMG. It's definitely bad news for EMI and Warner, which looked set for their own marriage. But it's good news that competition is valued, and that even the mightiest can be held to account.

a.townsend@independent.co.uk

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