Aventis architect sees himself as Anglophile art-lover

HOLLYWOOD — Jean-Rene Fourtou, the 63-year-old tapped as interim successor to Vivendi Universal chairman Jean-Marie Messier, comes out of the same cookie-cutter business elite as his predecessor, but he’s a no-nonsense turnaround artist rather than a mercurial maverick.

Where Messier is glib, flamboyant and unpredictable, Fourtou is widely considered a studied exec whose approach is measured and step sure-footed.

His reputation as the architect of French pharmaceutical giant Aventis suggests Fourtou will bring a hands-on, no-nonsense approach to the huge task of paring down Viv U’s debt, revving up its stock price and reorganizing or disposing of certain key assets.

The appointment of Fourtou may be announced as soon as Wednesday.

Fourtou prides himself — as does Messier — on being an Anglophile and a lover of the arts. Also like Messier, and most members of the Gallic business and political elite, he is “an Enarque,” having graduated from ENA, the country’s prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration.

The right chemistry

But while Messier’s maniacal acquisitions spree over the last 18 months has left Viv U groaning under debt, Fourtou is credited with orchestrating the hugely successful privatization of Rhone-Poulenc and its transformation into a world-class pharmaceutical giant.

From 1986 to 1993, Fourtou propelled that ailing chemical and drug company into a pill powerhouse. When the company was privatized in 1993, it was worth 34 billion francs; today it’s worth several times that.

Fourtou also turned the company into a global player, merging it with German group Hoechst in 1999 to create Aventis. And he pulled off the merger while managing to head off ego and culture clashes at the two firms.

Fourtou, who is officially vice chairman of the supervisory board of Aventis, is a confidante of Claude Bebear, the powerful head of French insurer Axa. Latter is credited with backing Fourtou’s ascent to the Viv U helm.

Messier has been lambasted repeatedly in the French press in recent months for such missteps as his poor political handling of the axing of former Canal Plus chairman Pierre Lescure. For his part, Fourtou is reckoned one of the more politically astute operators.

Fourtou is almost certain to accept Viv U’s offer, Paris-based sources told Daily Variety Monday. (Two other execs — Marc Vienot, head of Viv U’s audit committee, and Charles de Croisset, head of Credit Commercial de France — are considered candidates for the top job only if Fourtou declines.)

Beffa wooed

Meanwhile, Saint-Gobain CEO Jean-Louis Beffa apparently turned down an offer to replace Messier in recent days. Beffa resigned from the Viv U board earlier this year, one of five French directors to leave since March. Last week, Messier ally Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, quit the board as well.

Fourtou was born near Bordeaux. His mother died shortly after he was born and since his father was a cavalry officer, Fourtou was sent to live with his grandfather in San Sebastian, Spain. He speaks fluent Spanish as well as English. An ardent internationalist, Fourtou was one of the leading early advocates of the European Union.

Fourtou is married and has three sons — an engineer, a sculptor and a flamenco dancer. Aside from the arts, he is an avid golf and tennis player — talents that may come in handy when he tries to network in Hollywood.

(Andrea R. Vaucher in Paris and Cathy Dunkley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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