Havas, known for its Larousse dictionaries and L'Express magazine, must reduce its dependence on the French market, where it generates 80 per cent of publishing revenue, said Eric Licoys. The company is under pressure to do so from its main shareholder, Generale des Eaux, amid weak consumer spending at home.
"Havas deserves to be more than just French," Mr Licoys said in an interview. "We're going to do everything possible to expand internationally. We are systematically searching for acquisition opportunities."
Europe's publishing industry has consolidated in recent months as companies battle for market share. Earlier this year, France's Lagardere merged its Hachette publishing division with Filipacchi Medias, another French publisher. Reed Elsevier is in the process of merging with Wolters Kluwer of the Netherlands and wants to sell its IPC consumer magazine arm.
Mr Licoys said Havas was looking to make acquisitions in educational publishing and reference books, business magazines and trade journals and trade exhibitions.
Shares of Havas rose 1.1 per cent to FFr415 after speculation that Pierre Dauzier, the company's chief executive, was negotiating his departure. Mr Licoys declined to comment.
Publishing and trade shows generated $1.1bn (pounds 700m) in sales for Havas last year, or a quarter of its total sales of $4.9bn. The company, best known as the controlling shareholder in Europe's biggest pay-television company, Canal Plus, expanded its French publishing revenues this year when it bought out minority shareholders in CEP Communication. It renamed the company Havas Publications Editions.
Mr Licoys, a former Generale des Eaux executive, said Havas had the cash it needed to make acquisitions after selling advertising units IP and Mediavision this year. Such sales are in line of Havas's strategy of focusing resources on publishing and television as it seeks to take on European rivals such as Germany's Bertelsmann.
Havas could look to acquire the trade exhibitions units of United News & Media of the UK or Reed Elsevier, although such purchases could be costly. However, analysts were hard pressed to name any specific publications it could buy. They said Havas would have more acquisition opportunities, especially in publishing, in Spain and Italy.
"There's not a lot of room for them in the US and UK", said Laurent Carozzi, an analyst at Paribas Capital Markets. "Every time you want to make an acquisition you have to compete against the likes of Reed and Wolters and the price is high."
Mr Licoys said Havas has decided not to bid for the IPC consumer magazines division because it seemed too expensive and didn't fit with Havas's businesses. He ruled out selling major parts of its French publishing business to help finance foreign expansion. Instead, Havas wants to build on them to create a bigger catalogue of titles it can use in its electronic products, such as its own CD-ROM business. The publications will also be used as a base for joint products offered by Canal Plus and Generale des Eaux's telephone unit Cegetel.
"Anything we do in the coming months will be the publishing business," Mr Licoys said. "This is a very attractive industry and probably the main source of profits and we're going to expand that way."
Havas's wave of asset sales is largely over, he said, although it is still studying how best to sell part of its travel agency and a building it owns in the elegant Parisian suburb of Neuilly, Mr Licoys said. It plans to reduce its stake in Havas Advertising.
The company is also in talks with Bertelsmann over their 50/50 book distribution business, France Loisirs. Mr Licoys declined to comment on the nature of the talks. Analysts say Havas may sell its stake in the venture to Bertelsmann and that Bertelsmann could acquire some of Havas's publications.
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