Fourtou taps new Viv U CFO

Espinasse to help point co. in strategic direction

PARIS — Vivendi Universal chief financial officer Guillaume Hannezo was ousted Wednesday and will be replaced by Jacques Espinasse, chief operating officer of Canal Plus’ smaller paybox competitor, TPS.

Espinasse, the first key appointment by new Viv U CEO Jean-Rene Fourtou, is a seasoned financial manager with a master’s degree in business administration from the U. of Michigan.

Espinasse and Fourtou will have to work closely to restructure the giant conglom and restore the faith of investors. They’re examining Viv U’s books and assets and plan to unveil a strategic direction this fall.

Espinasse, who will join Viv U’s executive committee, is credited with turning TPS into a serious rival to Canal Plus during his tenure — although both platforms lose money. TPS has output deals with MGM and Paramount and is an integral part of parent TF1’s expansion strategy into the movie biz.

TF1 prexy Patrick Le Lay told Daily Variety the broadcaster is seriously interested in grabbing a stake in Canal Plus — “but only in the channel, not the entire group” — should it come on the block.

Exiting CFO Hannezo, who was appointed by deposed chairman-CEO Jean-Marie Messier, has taken on a six-month assignment as adviser to Fourtou to facilitate the transition, Viv U said in a statement.

Messier resigned two weeks ago, facing a mutiny by his board of directors and skittish banks reluctant to lend the conglom much-needed cash. Messier, vacationing with his family in Montana, apparently has given up on a meaty exit package.

Not-so-golden parachute

Showbiz often showers departing execs with cash, but that’s hard to justify given the current climate and a steep drop in Viv U’s stock price under Messier’s watch. Viv U also is being probed by French antitrust authorities.

Cash-strapped new management must designate assets for sale, with possibilities ranging from Vivendi Environment to telecoms and entertainment. In addition to TF1, a number of parties are exploring a possible deal with Canal Plus, including French broadcaster M6, News Corp., Arnaud Lagardere and Jerome Seydoux.

As speculation heats up, French media watchdog the Conseil Superieur de l’Audiovisual issued a statement Tuesday warning that it must be notified regarding modifications of Canal Plus’ capital structure.

Espinasse’s move to Viv U has set Gallic tongues wagging about a new attempt to merge TPS and Viv U satcaster CanalSatellite. European Union antitrust authorities nixed a combo in 1997.

TF1 owns 50% of TPS. M6 and Bank of Suez each own 25%.

Espinasse has held the No. 2 post at TPF since 1999. He was previously CFO at Havas and has held high-level posts at Renault and Larousse Nathan.

Viv U shares rallied sharply Wednesday, rising nearly 9% in New York to close at $16.75.

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