Olivennes exit follows mounting tension with Messier

This article was updated on Apr. 14, 2002.

PARIS — Canal Plus chief operating officer and top Vivendi Universal exec Denis Olivennes ankled the conglom late Friday after weeks of mounting tension between the money-losing pay TV unit and its giant parent.

The resignation of Olivennes, a member of Vivendi U’s executive committee, seemed a sharp vote of no confidence in the leadership of chairman-CEO Jean Marie Messier, whose strategic vision has been under fire. Speculation about a boardroom coup has been rampant as Vivendi stock has fallen 40% this year and the company recently posted the largest annual loss in French corporate history.

It’s also likely that Messier, desperate to make some changes at Canal Plus, ousted Olivennes to send a message of strength ahead of Vivendi’s shareholders meeting April 24 in Paris. “Olivennes decided to jump before he was pushed,” one insider said.

Separately, wire reports Sunday said Messier’s salary was s2.38 million ($2.09 million) in 2001, while former vice chairman and board member Edgar Bronfman Jr., who gave up operational responsibilities at Vivendi late last year, earned $3.10 million.

“Messier needs to make a proclamation that sends the message he’s in control and capable of reversing Canal’s financial outlook,” another insider said.

Olivennes and Canal Plus chairman Pierre Lescure had been at loggerheads with Messier since the Vivendi U topper publicly lambasted the financial state of the money-losing feevee in early March and set a target of two years to turn it around — or else.

Lescure responded with a defiant email to his demoralized staff, refuting Messier’s criticisms and insisting that Canal Plus had met its objectives for 2001. Lescure, whose position at the conglom has been shaky, further upbraided Vivendi for adding to Canal Plus’ woes by investing in assets like Italy’s money-losing pay platform Telepiu.

A person close to Olivennes told Daily Variety over the weekend that Olivennes’ move was “sacrificial” and calculated to make Lescure “indispensable” to Canal Plus and Vivendi.

But Olivennes’ resignation took many in and outside the company by surprise. “Denis Olivennes was carrying out a difficult and complicated task with determination, and we’re sorry he’s leaving,” said a Vivendi U spokesman.

Lescure said he was “profoundly saddened” by Olivennes’ departure but wholeheartedly respected the decision.

Olivennes rose through the Canal Plus empire after joining the pay service from Air France, where he was responsible for the financial restructuring of the airline. He was regarded as a key figure in the efforts to drag Canal Plus back into the black after years of losses.

(Adam Dawtrey in London and Jill Goldsmith in New York contributed to this report.)

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