A big U bienvenue

New Vivendi chief sees no imminent sale

NEW YORK — U Studios brass will roll out the red carpet today for Jean-Rene Fourtou, who is making his first Stateside swing since taking over as chairman-CEO at Vivendi Universal.

Fourtou met Thursday with top execs at Viv U’s Gotham offices and Universal Music, following a tete-a-tete with Viv U Entertainment chairman Barry Diller Wednesday. His message today is likely to echo Thursday’s: No major moves on key assets Vivendi Universal Entertainment, Vivendi Environment or Cegetel any time soon.

That could allay tension at U Studios, where rumors of a firesale of assets have fanned worries about budget cuts and job security in the upper ranks.

Fourtou indicated Thursday he’d like Viv U to be a successful international company, not necessarily beat a hasty retreat into France as many have speculated, said people with knowledge of his meeting with about 25 corporate execs, followed by a session with Doug Morris and U Music toppers.

“There was no feeling of ‘Let’s just go back to being French.’ He respects the power, strength and value of the U.S. assets,” one person said.

The exec has identified as many as 70 non-core assets worldwide the company could sell for cash. It’s also likely to get a 2 billion euro credit line later this month.

Viv U’s sale of Canal Plus Technologies to Thomson could be announced early next week. A deal with Rupert Murdoch on Telepiu is in the works and bidders are circling the giant publishing division, one of the biggest pieces of the Viv U empire that’s on the block. A decision on publishing could come on or near a highly anticipated Sept. 25 board meeting.

Fourtou said in a letter to employees last month that it’s unlikely a water company, an entertainment company and a telecom company can exist under one roof, so it’s likely that in the longer term — a year or more — one of those businesses could be spun off or sold or, in the case of Cegetel, be purchased in its entirety.

Of course, strategy ultimately depends on the board, which ousted Jean-Marie Messier and installed Fortou in July to patch up the company’s finances and boost its stock. The shares haven’t cooperated yet. They firmed 0.15% Thursday, closing at $13.78. That’s up from a 52-week low of $8.90 in mid-August but a far cry from their year high near $60.

Meanwhile, the rumor mill continues to grind in Hollywood about Viv U cutting Universal lose in scenarios that feature Diller, John Malone and even DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Fortou and Diller are said to be exploring ways to unwind certain complex ownership arrangements and other structural quirks at Vivendi Universal Entertainment, which was created when Viv U bought Diller’s USA Networks last December.

Those need to be unraveled before U’s future can be settled — and so Viv U can finalize the credit line it badly needs from a consortium of French banks.

A Vivendi Universal representative declined to comment on Fourtou’s visit.

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