Messier forced on defensive at Vivendi AGM

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The Independent Online

"Can something be done about the temperature in the room?" Jean-Marie Messier asked plaintively.

The most controversial businessman in France was understandably concerned last night about the heat in the Zenith concert hall in Paris, hired to hold the Vivendi Universal shareholders' meeting.

He had a point. It was insufferable. There was, already, enough emotional and political heat inside the vast hall without turning up the central heating on a warm April day.

Mr Messier, 46, who has presided over a disastrous year for the world's second-largest media company, was booed, hissed and heckled. Most of the noise came from employees of the loss-making Canal Plus pay-TV company who had come to demand the reinstatement of their boss, Pierre Lescure, fired by Mr Messier last week.

But Mr Messier, overdressed for the temperature in a shiny grey suit and maroon tie, ignored the cries and insults. Vivendi's poor performance – 13.6bn euros (£8.4bn) in losses in 2001, €34.6bn in debts, a share price 40 per cent down on a year ago, but recovering since Mr Lescure's firing – was partly his fault, he admitted.

But 2001 had been a "paradoxical" year. In terms of internal growth (13 per cent up) and cash flow (250 per cent up), Vivendi Universal was exactly where he wanted it to be since it took over Seagram and Canal Plus. Vivendi was, he said, on the road to become the world's largest media company. (Disbelieving boos.)

The fact that these underlying successes was the not reflected in the share price was partly the fault of "rumours" deliberately spread in the market for "speculative gain", he said.

To buy off what had been billed as a shareholders revolt, Mr Messier made five pledges and a personal commitment. He said he would reinvest every euro cent of his annual bonus in Vivendi shares.

He pledged that there would be no more big acquisitions, the company would reduce its debt and increase cash flow, improve "synergies" by marketing its brand names better, and loss-making subsidiaries would be turned around.

As the meeting continued last night, all indications were that Mr Messier would have his place as president-directeur general confirmed. "What choice do we have but to give him a few more months?" said one shareholder. "If he goes now, the company will probably be broken up and will get the current share price, not the price that we bought in for."

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