Fourtou at Viv U’s front

Two committees to o'see company's restructuring

PARIS — Vivendi Universal prexy and chief exec Jean-Marie Messier was officially ousted by the board of the media conglom Wednesday, and Jean-Rene Fourtou was handed the reins during a special meeting at Vivendi’s Paris offices Wednesday night.

Completing the power transfer, Claude Bebear, head of the supervisory board at French insurance giant AXA and the man many believe rallied the pillars of French business and politics to force Messier out, will join the Vivendi board.

Gerard Kleisterlee, chief exec of Dutch electronics giant Philips, is also joining the board.

In addition, the board — which convened at 6 p.m. Paris time — voted to establish two committees to oversee Viv U’s restructuring: a financial committee headed by Bebear and a strategy committee run by fellow board member Henri Lachmann.

Moreover, Viv U will set up two working groups, comprised of people inside and outside the company, to hash out financial troubles.

“In the next two weeks, all possible measures will be taken to improve the situation, particularly in terms of the short-term cash position,” said Fourtou, formerly vice chairman of the board of drug maker Aventis, in a statement.

“I have every confidence that the company has the strengths to address its liquidity issues and to find the appropriate solutions in the immediate term,” he added.

The French conglom, which exploded onto the global media scene after acquiring Seagram two years ago, has since been struggling to operate under a $30 billion debtload and growing investor concern over corporate strategy.

Viv U directors sacked Messier in absentia, as the embattled exec is said to have hopped a plane at the last minute for New York.

Messier is thought to have left with a severance package worth nearly $18 million. It’s not clear whether his other reported demand — continued use of the $17 million Park Ave. apartment the conglom bought for him last year — was met by the board.

Viv U stock took another beating on the Paris Bourse Wednesday, falling 3.9 euros to 13.9 euros, a one-day drop of 22.5%. The stock has fallen 42% since Monday and almost 80% since the beginning of the year.

On Wall Street, the picture was only slightly less bleak: Viv U’s American depository receipts closed down $2.10 to $15.66, a drop of nearly 12% — and yet another 52-week low.

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