A little more than two years ago Vincent Bollore, one of France’s richest men and a once-feared corporate raider, was best known for providing the small electric cars available to rent on the streets of Paris.
Yesterday’s agreement by Vivendi SA to enter exclusive talks to sell its Brazilian broadband business for 7.45 billion euros ($10 billion) re-establishes the 62-year-old Breton billionaire as a central figure in French business.
A year after the 2011 launch of his Autolib’ electric car service, Bollore acquired a 5 percent stake in Vivendi, then an unwieldy conglomerate which owned three telecommunications operators, a video-games maker, a music company and a television channel.
Since his arrival on Vivendi’s share register and board the company has been transformed, selling SFR, its French phone operator, as well as stakes in Maroc Telecom and Activision Blizzard Inc., the U.S. gamemaker. If the disposal of GVT, its Brazilian fixed-line unit, to Spain’s Telefonica SA is completed, the newly slimmed down Vivendi will consist of just the Universal Music Group and Canal Plus, the French pay-TV provider.
“Bollore is proving himself once again as a corporate operator and value creator,” said Cato Stonex, a fund manager at London-based Taube Hodson Stonex Partners LLP, which manages $6.1 billion. “He knows how to make money for himself and for shareholders.”
Since September 2012, when Bollore’s intention to take his stake to 5 percent became public, Vivendi shares have risen more than 30 percent. They closed yesterday at a four-month high of 20.20 euros in Paris trading.
The proposed GVT sale caps a busy year for the man who collects comic books as well as stakes in companies he deems undervalued and where he can agitate for change.
In October, he carried out an initial public offering for his electric-car battery company, Blue Solutions SA, after taking a spin in one of his vehicles with French President Francois Hollande to promote the IPO. The venture remains close to his heart despite the increasing demands from Vivendi.
He became Vivendi’s chairman in June after using his position as the company’s biggest shareholder to push for a restructuring. “He’s a visionary in markets with long-term potential,” said Conor O’Shea, a media analyst at Kepler Cheuvreux in Paris.
He’s also hands-on. Bollore got directly involved in negotiations over GVT’s future, talking and meeting with the chief executive officers of Telefonica and rival bidder Telecom Italia SA, people familiar with the matter said, asking not to be named discussing private talks. Bollore wasn't available for an interview.
Bollore’s willingness to roll up his sleeves through 30 years of dealmaking has helped boost his personal fortune to $6.1 billion, according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index. That makes him one of France’s top 10 richest individuals. He has transformed a struggling paper-mill inherited from his family into Bollore SA, a holding company with a market value of 13 billion euros and interests in industries from energy to advertising and freight.
For Vivendi, the next steps may revolve around media.
After agreeing to about $30 billion of asset disposals, it will seek to bolster its activities in creating media content -- from films and television shows to music -- and distributing it, a person with knowledge of the matter said.
That means seeking partnerships and considering stake purchases in telecommunications operators as well as Internet distributors such as Google Inc.’s YouTube, Apple Inc.’s iTunes digital store and music-streaming service Spotify Ltd., the person said.
“With a cash balance and SFR being sold as well as GVT, the new Vivendi will be an unlevered media business with the potential to focus on existing media assets and expand on the media front,” said Guy Peddy, a Macquarie Bank analyst in London. “They will look at pay-TV, further content deals; this is the road they’ll be going down.”
Bollore, whose personal assets include a 65-meter (210 feet) cruising yacht dubbed Paloma, has already begun putting his stamp on Vivendi’s pay-TV company Canal Plus. The unit is expanding in Africa through a new channel, in a region where Bollore has extensive experience from running the continent’s largest transport and logistics operations.
Vivendi is likely to invest to develop more content with international appeal, said O’Shea, the Kepler analyst. Universal Music is already home to hundreds of pop acts from Justin Bieber to Kanye West and Metallica.
While Telecom Italia, which made a rival offer for GVT, is out of the picture for now, Bollore’s Italian connections are intriguing nonetheless.
For years he has had strong ties to Italy’s “Salotto Buono,” Italian for “good salon,” which refers to the country’s business elite. He served for more than three years as deputy chairman of Assicurazioni Generali SpA, Italy’s biggest insurer, from where he resigned last October. Bollore is also the second-largest shareholder of Mediobanca SpA, the country’s largest publicly traded investment bank and one of the biggest investors in Telecom Italia.