Vivendi Said to Seek External Candidate to Replace Levy

Vivendi SA CEO Jean-Bernard Levy
Jean-Bernard Levy, chief executive officer of Vivendi SA. Photographer: Fabrice Dimier/Bloomberg

Vivendi SA has hired a headhunter to find a successor to former Chief Executive Officer Jean-Bernard Levy and started identifying external candidates for the job, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Among potential candidates are Yoel Zaoui, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s former co-head of global mergers and acquisitions, and a senior General Electric Co. executive in Europe, one of the people said, asking not to be identified because the discussions are confidential. The search is at an early stage, and Vivendi may not appoint a new CEO before the end of this year, another person said.

Triggered by a clash with the board over strategy, Levy’s departure last week after seven years at the helm may accelerate a reorganization at Vivendi, the owner of the largest music and video-game companies. Levy’s successor will help Chairman Jean-Rene Fourtou, who now oversees strategy, overhaul the Paris-based company’s structure and restore investor confidence after its stock reached a nine-year low in April.

“The first step for Vivendi implementing any strategy is for them to name a CEO,” said Claudio Aspesi, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in London. “Whatever they want to do next, leaving it in limbo is not an option.”

A Vivendi official didn’t immediately return a phone call and an e-mail seeking comment. Zaoui wasn’t available for comment.

Goldman Veteran

Vivendi has been considering a change in its structure, with scenarios ranging from assets sales to a breakup of the company, people with knowledge of the matter have said. Options also include a possible sale of all or part of its stake in video-game publisher Activision Blizzard Inc. and a spinoff of pay-TV unit Canal Plus, they have said. Other Vivendi units include Universal Music Group and telecommunications providers in Morocco and Brazil.

Vivendi rose 0.4 percent to 14.87 euros in Paris. The stock has gained about 11 percent since Bloomberg News reported on June 28 that Levy was preparing to step down, a decision the company confirmed after the market close that day. Vivendi shares touched a nine-year low in April.

Vivendi’s choice of CEO will give an indication whether Chairman Fourtou prefers a financial expert or someone with the experience of running a conglomerate.

Dealmaking Experience

Zaoui, 51, would bring to Vivendi years of expertise in dealmaking. Born in Morocco, Zaoui received a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business before joining Goldman Sachs in New York in 1988. He moved to London one year later, where he helped build the company’s European mergers-and-acquisitions practice under the leadership of John Thornton.

Zaoui was promoted to co-head of European mergers in 1999, the year Goldman Sachs became the region’s top adviser on hostile takeovers, and in 2006 was promoted to run all of European investment banking. His departure from Goldman Sachs as co-head of global M&A was announced in April, less than a year after he took the position alongside Gene T. Sykes.

Goldman Sachs has advised Vivendi on 15 mergers or acquisitions since 1997, including helping the French company buy Activision in 2008, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Only Lazard has counseled Vivendi on a larger number of deals, the data show. In Vivendi’s biggest transaction, the $43.9 billion takeover of Seagram Co., Goldman Sachs advised Seagram and Lazard advised Vivendi.

EU Complaint

Following Levy’s removal last week, Vivendi has appointed General Counsel Jean-Francois Dubos to lead the management board. Until a new CEO is named, Dubos’ immediate challenges will include dealing with regulators.

The company’s Universal Music Group was told by European Union regulators that its bid for the recorded-music business of EMI Group would remove a key rival and harm competition for music sales, according to three people who have seen the EU document.

The complaint spells out EU concerns that Universal and EMI’s combined share of the retail music sales wouldn’t be checked by competitors or the threat of illegal music downloads, said the people who asked not to be identified because details of the EU complaint aren’t public. The European Commission last month sent Universal the list of potential competition problems.

Vivendi’s head of personnel, Stephane Roussel, was named interim chief of SFR, the French mobile-phone business that is Vivendi’s largest unit.

In his first meeting with unions as CEO of SFR, Roussel said today that the unit will execute plans in November to simplify its structure and cut jobs.

SFR, which accounted for 41 percent of Vivendi’s first-quarter sales, has plans to reduce operating costs by about 350 million euros in 2013, on top of the 450 million euros budgeted for this year, people with knowledge of the matter have said.