Vivendi board talks while stock plunges

By Saeed Shah
Wednesday 22 January 2014 05:15

Jean-Rene Fourtou last night prepared to take the helm at Vivendi Universal but the change of management failed to prevent another massive sell-off of shares in the French media giant.

Investors remained concerned about the perilous short-term financial position of the group, which must find €6bn (£3.9bn) to pay back loans due by the end of this year. The nervous markets did not take the departure from the chairmanship of Jean-Marie Messier as a sufficient reassurance.

Mr Messier, 45, declined to attend a board meeting called last night to confirm his departure and appoint a new chairman. There had been suggestions that he wanted to confront his enemies on the board one last time. However, in a statement to Vivendi employees, Mr Messier insisted that the shape of the company should be protected.

Mr Messier said: "Vivendi Universal must go on. Partial disposals are necessary but the core must be preserved: a major media and communications company, the only truly global and multicultural company."

Having put in a bid for a pay-off of up to €20m (£13m) and continued use of a $17.5m (£11.5m) company apartment bought in New York for him, he fled the country. Mr Fourtou, 63, is deputy chairman of the supervisory board at the drugs company Aventis.

Mark Harrington, an analyst at JP Morgan, said: "New management and the future strategy for VU is completely unknown at the moment and remains a key concern."

The Vivendi board is expected to also see a wider reshuffle and it met to draw up a rescue plan for the company, which is in crisis after running up a €19bn debt pile on Mr Messier's wild acquisition spree. A series of disposals are now expected to raise cash.

Talk of a break-up has led to speculation that the Canadian Bronfman family could grab back the entertainment assets it sold to Vivendi two years ago for $34bn at a bargain price.

It is thought that the new board could include a seat for France's most influential businessman and Axa insurance boss Claude Bebear, who was one of Mr Messier's most vocal critics.

Vivendi shares, having lost some 26 per cent in value on Tuesday, closed down another 22 per cent at €13.90 in Paris yesterday, taking its market value to €15bn and leaving Vivendi a shadow of the €67bn company it was at the start of the year.

Attempting to calm the market storm, the head of one of Vivendi's biggest lenders, BNP Paribas, denied rumours that the group was in danger of insolvency.

"(Vivendi) is not in any shape or form facing a solvency crisis which would imply its net assets were less than its net debt," said Michel Pebereau, the chairman of BNP Paris, France's biggest listed bank.

Mr Fourtou is seen as a safe pair of hands to get Vivendi into shape for either a break-up or major overhaul and he comes with heavyweight political backing from President Jacques Chirac. He oversaw the 1999 merger between France's Rhone-Poulenc and Germany's Hoechst that created Aventis.

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