Back in her university days, Agnès Touraine wanted to apply to the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the elite graduate school for France's government and business Establishment. But her school advisers talked her out of it, saying she wasn't ENA material. In a sense, they were right. Touraine, 47, now heads the $4.2 billion-a-year publishing unit of Vivendi Universal (V ) and is thus a key architect of France's most anti-Establishment company. Her restless edge and her taste for fast-paced dealmaking have set her apart from the cautious, clubby world of French business.
Vivendi Chief Executive Jean-Marie Messier has bagged most of the headlines as the company morphed from a stodgy French utility into the globe's No. 2 media company. But it was Touraine who pushed for Vivendi's first big move into the U.S., with the $700 million acquisition in 1998 of Cendant Software, the top publisher of game and educational CD-ROMs. Last year, she engineered an even bigger deal, the $2.2 billion acquisition of Houghton Mifflin, to make Vivendi the world's second-largest educational publisher, behind Pearson. And with controversy swirling around Messier--as Vivendi's share price nosedived 50% this year--Touraine has taken an increasingly prominent role, acknowledging publicly that the company has done a poor job of explaining its strategy.
Vivendi is a rocky place to work these days, but Touraine has a knack for landing on her feet. When her ENA dreams didn't pan out, she headed for the U.S., where she got an MBA at Columbia Graduate School of Business. Hired in 1990 by French publisher Hachette, she rose quickly to become head of the consumer publishing division. But five years later, itching for a new challenge, she quit to join an electronic-publishing startup launched by Havas, a Hachette rival. When Havas was acquired by Vivendi in 1998, Touraine found that CEO Messier shared her view that being a champion in the French market was not enough. "The choice was either we stood still in our local market or we did what our competitors were doing: becoming global," she says.
Touraine's realm, which spans books, educational software, and electronic games, is central to Vivendi's hopes of mining added value from its disparate holdings. For example, it's creating interactive games based on Universal film releases such as The Mummy Returns and on books such as Houghton Mifflin's classic Curious George series. The results are impressive, with operating profits overall up 15% last year, including a 26% rise in the games unit.
The job requires her to shuttle constantly between France and the U.S. --and with her recent promotion to senior executive vice-president, she also keeps tabs on Vivendi holdings in Asia and Latin America. On weekends she's always back in France, where leisurely Sunday afternoon walks with her husband and two children are a cherished ritual. But otherwise, Touraine keeps moving at a supercharged pace.