Billionaire Bollore Returns to Brittany With Batteries Plant

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French billionaire Vincent Bollore is used to getting kudos from investors and analysts. Now he’s got France’s president angling to share that spotlight.

With French unemployment at a 14-year high, Bollore’s move to expand production and add jobs at his electric-car battery factory near Quimper, Brittany, earned him a visit from President Francois Hollande, who traveled to France’s western-most province today to speak at the site’s inauguration.

Blue Solutions, headed for an initial public offering in 40 days, is one of the latest developments Bollore’s brought to his family’s business. Over 30 years, he’s taken a struggling paper-mill and transformed it into Bollore SA, a holding company with a market value of 10.9 billion euros ($14.7 billion) and interests in banking, media and shipping. And his rise to the biggest shareholder at Havas SA and Vivendi SA has helped make him rich -- and made some fellow investors happy.

“We are in the far west of France,” Bollore said in a Bloomberg Television interview outside the factory, where lines of electric cars and solar panels are showcased. The plant’s “name is ‘Pen-Carn,’ which means ’never afraid,’” he said.

After hosting reporters in Quimper to visit the site and offering a taste of traditional Breton music -- live bagpipes, drums, and a traditional woodwind instrument known as a bombarde -- Bollore hopped behind the wheel of a mini-bus equipped with one of his company’s batteries and set off to escort Hollande.

‘Aggressive Bets’

Bollore has a net worth of at least $4.4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The 61-year-old father of four has started delegating parts of the family business to his children in preparation for his retirement in 2022.

Bollore shares fell 0.5 percent to 397.95 euros in Paris.

He made a name spotting cheap stocks and moving in, often demanding strategy or management changes to boost the shares, then cashing in. He made about 800 million euros in profit in the early 2000s on transactions in investment bank Lazard LLC, construction company Bouygues SA and media company Pathe SA.

Bollore “takes aggressive bets on corporate situations,” said Alex DeGroote, an analyst at Panmure Gordon & Co. in London. “Bollore is not only one of the biggest players in European media, but also one of the main shareholder activists these days, with a strong track record.”

At Vivendi, shareholders started calling for him to join the board as early as April last year, when he had just a 1 percent stake. Now at 5 percent, he’s the biggest shareholder in the group and last week was named deputy chairman as Vivendi restructures to focus on its media businesses.

Bibles, Cigarettes

With Quimper, Bollore is going home. In June, he said he poured in 250 millions euros to expand production and create 300 jobs in the northwestern France village that’s 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean. The family founded Papeteries Bollore in 1822 near the town, according to its website, making paper for Bibles and Korans and cigarette paper that B.B. King and Spanish singer Raimundo Amador sang about.

“We’ve developed a lot of businesses since 1822, and we are still in the heart of Brittany,” Bollore told Bloomberg TV.

He took over in 1981 as the family business was struggling. He used it as a platform to get into a bit of everything. He took a stake of Mediobanca SpA, Italy’s biggest publicly traded investment bank, and built electric cars with Ferrari-designer Pininfarina SpA. It operates ports in Congo, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast and runs Cameroon’s rail system.

Aegis, Havas

Bollore got into media in 2004. He invested in Aegis Group Plc -- taken over last year by Dentsu Inc. -- and Havas, the advertising company that made French water bottler Evian’s roller-baby commercials. Bollore also has two free newspapers, a stake in movie producer Gaumont SA and a cinema in Paris.

Next he is selling 10 percent of Blue Solutions on the market on Oct. 30. He’s been testing the electric-battery technology, based on a distinct technology called lithium metal polymer, with a Paris car-sharing service, and said last week he’ll collaborate with Renault SA on a three-seat vehicle using one of his batteries. He predicts they’ll be in boats, buses, houses and trams, as well as cars, in the next decade.

Cars with “electromobility” will make up 5 percent to 10 percent of the market by 2020, from well under 1 percent now, according to Herbert Diess, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s development chief. And every major carmaker, from Nissan Motor Co. and partner Renault to Volkswagen AG, showed off electric or hybrid cars this month at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt.

Still, enthusiasm for alternative-drive engines has yet to translate into significant sales amid consumers’ concerns that powering systems offer only limited distance before a recharge is needed and objections to higher prices.

That’s just one more thing that distinguishes Bollore, he said last week in Paris. “A normal company gets orders first, then builds factories. We’re building factories first -- we’re not like other companies.”