The decline and fall of Jean Marie Messier resonates on many levels, both economic and cultural. Messier liked to present himself as the most Americanized of any major Euro business leader, yet was brought down by a cadre of opponents led by the North American Bronfmans.
Messier was the ultimate advocate of vertical integration, yet was defeated by the sheer weight of his acquisitions. Messier was technology’s boldest rainmaker, yet was bedeviled by his inability to realize his visionary marriage of wireless and media.
While Messier’s vision presupposed a world of global behemoths, the imminent Balkanization of Vivendi may presage a series of breakups that would sharply change the geopolitics of the media industry.
Investors simply did not buy the Messier master plan, nor did they accept his blueprint for reducing the company’s $33 billion debt load.
The upshot could be a series of deals that may include, at the least, the shedding of Vivendi’s stake in mobile phone entity Cegetel or, on an even broader level, the disposal of Canal Plus and Universal.
This would pacify the French, who have been fretful about Hollywood’s dire influence on their pop culture, while at the same time assuaging the tensions at Universal, whose denizens fear Vivendi’s corporate chaos.
Last time the Bronfmans were involved in Universal, the family seemed both defensive and divided. The studio understandably feels that its track record justifies a show of confidence in the form of heightened budgets. For the moment, however, studio executives will be lucky to figure out who has the authority to make any decision.
In recent weeks, there’s been a crescendo of speculation about Barry Diller shepherding all of the Universal assets, but some associates suggest that Diller himself would have mixed feelings about such a role. Diller already controls Universal’s TV machinery, but “Barry is simply not comfortable running a movie company,” one associate points out. “He’s not a believer.”
While the investment bankers circle, vulture-like, over Vivendi’s diverse assets, some showbiz insiders are still reeling from the personal drama of Messier’s downfall. No one in recent memory has invaded the sanctum sanctorum of the media business with such swagger nor seemed so persuaded of his own invincibility.
He struck many as a bundle of contradictions: On the one hand, his personal presentation was calm and measured and his command of English superb. His politics were conservative, his family life stolid. Yet his business behavior was bold to the point of recklessness. His business projections seemed impossible to achieve, even in a favorable economy.
He defied advisers who argued, for example, that the firing of Pierre Lescure be put off until calmer times prevailed. Messier exacerbated the alarm of his French allies by buying a $17 million apartment in New York, signing on to support all manner of Gotham philanthropies and dropping hints that French artists could not count on the permanence of their subsidies.
Messier clearly felt any reasonable person would find his vision irresistible. He was wrong.