Vivendi's Messier masterminds media metamorphosis

Updated 7:12 AM ET June 14, 2000

By Noah Barkin

PARIS, June 14 (Reuters) - From debt-laden water utility to red-hot global media powerhouse -- if Vivendi chief Jean-Marie Messier pulls off his latest coup he will have engineered one of the fastest, most far-reaching corporate transformations ever.

Since taking the reins of what was then called Generale des Eaux in 1996, the energetic 43-year-old former investment banker has rarely stopped to catch breath.

In recent years he snapped up French publisher Havas and film group Pathe, snared 49 percent of pay television group Canal Plus and helped turn SFR into France's number two mobile phone operator.

In January, he struck a deal with British mobile phone operator Vodafone Airtouch to create a new European Web portal dubbed "Vizzavi."

And on Wednesday, Vivendi announced it was in three-way merger discussions with Canal Plus and Canadian entertainment and drinks company Seagram -- a combination which may put Messier at the top of one of the world's most powerful media groups.

"This would create an AOL-Time Warner of Europe and arguably an even sexier company because of its music holdings," said a Paris-based analyst.

To those who remember the cumbersome utility which Messier took over at the tender age of 38, the metamorphosis is shocking in its scope and rapidity.

And it shows that while his early resume may be right in line with France's traditional elite, Messier has made his name by revolting against the conservative, gradual approach favoured by French and European businessmen of the past.

TRADITIONAL ROOTS BUT RADICAL APPROACH

The son of an accountant from Grenoble, Jean-Marie Raymond Pierre Messier graduated from the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique, the training ground for the country's top businessmen, and the legendary academy for French civil servants -- the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA).

Next he joined the French Treasury and by 1986, at 29 years of age, was advising the Ministry of Finance on privatisation programmes.

This was followed by a five-year stint at investment bank Lazard Freres, where as the firm's youngest-ever partner he became the man French businessmen sought out when they were looking to expand into the United States.

A practising Catholic, Messier pilots planes, skis and plays tennis in his spare time. He is married to Antoinette, a physics teacher at a Paris lycee, and has five children.

A staunch defender of "shareholder value," he is regularly lampooned in a satirical show on his own TV station Canal Plus as a businessman who gets great satisfaction from his capitalist adventures.

Messier moved to Generale des Eaux in 1994 and soon began transforming the company -- which had expanded from utilities to real estate, theme parks, catering and travel agencies -- into a streamlined conglomerate focused on communications and environment.

He renamed the firm Vivendi, and created a corporate identity complete with logo and advertising as the facelift's finishing touches.

Now he stands at the head of a firm which is active in 90 countries, provides water and wastewater services to 80 million customers worldwide and produces electricity in Asia, Europe and the United States.

As well as Canal Plus, Havas and SFR parent Cegetel, Vivendi's communications business holds stakes in Internet provider AOL France and UK pay-TV operator BSkyB.

Messier plans to spin off Vivendi Environment, listing its shares on the market this summer.

A deal with Seagram and Canal Plus, which analysts said still faces ample regulatory and financial hurdles, would seal the company's transformation from local water player to global media machine.

The real challenge for Messier, should the deal go ahead, could then be sharing power with Seagram Chief Executive Edgar Bronfman Jr -- another charismatic mogul in the same ambitious mold.

Vivendi Time-line

  • 1853: Vivendi founded as Compagnie Generale des Eaux, a water company.
  • 1980: Expands to utilities and waste management with new companies.
  • 1983: Enters into venture with Havas media group to found Canal Plus.
  • 1987: Creates Societe Francaise de Radiotelephonie, tapping into deregulated French mobile phone market.
  • 1988: Takes controlling stake in construction and civil engineering group, Societe Generale d'Entreprise.
  • 1996: Jean Marie Messier, then 39, takes over as chairman.
  • 1998: changes name to Vivendi; shifts Generale des Eaux name to water business.
  • 2000: Acquires Seagram Co. and the 51 percent of Canal Plus it didn't already own in three-way deal.