Payout withheld by lawsuit-fearing board

PARIS — Fallen Vivendi Universal topper Jean-Marie Messier may have exited the entertainment giant without the $18 million golden parachute he was seeking.

Board members have reportedly nixed the payout, fearing a lawsuit from minority shareholders.

It’s not clear whether the board met his other demand: continued use of the $17 million Park Avenue apartment the conglom bought for him in Manhattan last year. But rumors had his wife, Antoinette, already packing up the place.

Messier was officially ousted during a special meeting at Viv U’s Paris offices Wednesday night, when Jean-Rene Fourtou was handed the reins.

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

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

Concerns that Vivendi is struggling with its $18.5 billion media debt pile wiped a third off the market value of the group in the first three sessions of last week. But the shares rebounded after Fourtou took charge, closing up 16% to $16.50 Friday amid growing confidence.

The day before, Fourtou met employees at the Paris headquarters and told them he would give himself until September to come up with a restructuring plan, saying he had no “preconceived ideas” about the conglom’s final configuration.

Putting the Viv U situation in perspective, Fourtou assured staff that when he took over chemical giant Rhone-Poulenc in 1986, the situation there was worse.

But according to a liquidity statement released Wednesday night, Viv U could face a cash crunch of $2.6 billion by the end of the year and a shortage of $5.36 billion by mid-2003 unless Fourtou and company can secure new multibillion-dollar credit lines.

Fourtou says his first job is to get the conglom’s finances in order and is ordering a financial and strategic audit. Viv U has $1.17 billion in cash, but must honor $1.75 billion in debts by the end of the month. The group will draw on its existing $1.56 billion credit line and renegotiate $3.7 billion in credit lines due to be rolled over in July.

Daniel Bouton, prexy of the Societe Generale bank, one of Viv U’s principal lenders, said in an interview with Gallic press Sunday that asset selloffs were inevitable, but he repeated that the group’s assets outweighed its liabilities.

According to Fourtou, Viv U management will remain unchanged. Messier supporters Eric Licoys (managing director), Guillaume Hannezo (financial director), Agnes Touraine (Viv U publishing) and Philippe Germond (Viv U telecommunications and Internet) will retain their posts atop the corporate structure.

(Reuters contributed to this report.)

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