Viv topper is French toast

Embattled Messier to step down

This article was updated at 10 p.m.

PARIS — Vivendi Universal topper Jean-Marie Messier has met his Waterloo.

Days after the embattled chief exec fought off a coup engineered by several Viv U board members and backed by major shareholder the Bronfman family, Messier has agreed to step down as president-CEO of the French conglom.

“I tried to do too much too quickly,” Messier told France’s Le Figaro newspaper, explaining why he had agreed to step down.

But Messier appeared determined to exit his way. The chief executive insisted on confronting his previously loyal allies at a board meeting on Wednesday, effectively forcing them to sack him face-to-face.

He also only agreed to go if his replacement was French — a demand the board met by picking the French head of pharmaceutical firm Aventis, Jean-Rene Fourtou, as the interim chief executive.

Board members and investors have grown increasingly dismayed with 45-year-old Messier: Viv U shares have tumbled 60% over the past year as the exec’s increasingly aggressive dealmaking pushed the company deeply into the red while muddying its corporate strategy.

“A lot of decisions were made without the greenlight of the board,” said a French source. Messier apparently resisted tendering his resignation until he was guaranteed the board won’t file any lawsuits against him. Viv U refused to comment on the event.

The coup de grace may have been a threat from board members to call a shareholder vote to determine Messier’s fate.

Market activity Monday indicated Messier wouldn’t have fared too well in such a vote: Viv U shares soared 13% on the Paris exchange to $24.55 after reports of his ouster.

On Wednesday, the stock traded at its lowest point ever, $15.94 a share. On Wall Street on Monday, the stock was trading at $22.48, up 5%.

Messier’s successor is a respected exec known for internationalizing French chemical company Rhone-Poulenc. He is widely expected to start formulating a plan immediately to sell off assets and begin trimming the conglom’s massive $34 billion debt load. His task: To consolidate the company’s debt and organize its future.

Presidential pal

A member of the “Chiraquerie” — the French good-old-boys network that flocks around President Jacques Chirac — Fourtou was born near Bordeaux, raised in Spain and speaks perfect English.

“He’s very smart and has the heart and ear of everyone who counts in the French marketplace,” said Philippe Labro, industrialist Vincent Bollore’s media adviser.

According to French daily Liberation, Viv U’s six Euro board members — the same men and women who supported Messier last week — met with Messier over the weekend and explained that he could either resign or be ousted.

The abrupt change of face among even those seen as staunch Messier supporters was apparently exacerbated by pressure from Chirac, whose advisers feared the Americans and Canadians on the Viv U board — the Bronfman camp — would buy enough shares to mount a hostile takeover of the company.

Last week 100 million shares of Viv U stock — approximately 10% of the company — changed hands.

In 2001, Viv U lost $13 billion under Messier’s watch.

Messier rose to the forefront of the global media biz two years ago when he engineered Vivendi’s acquisition of Seagram Cos. — including film unit Universal Studios and major record label Universal Music — with a vision of delivering entertainment all over the world via wireless networks.

Media millstone

But the acquisition saddled the newly formed Viv U with billions in debt, a problem that became acute after the completion of several smaller deals.

Conglom bought Barry Diller’s USA Networks for $12 billion, made a $1.5 billion investment in satcaster EchoStar and paid $2.4 billion for a minority stake in Maroc Telecom, among others.

“I think it was last year when they really started going overboard,” said media analyst Michael Nathanson of Sanford Bernstein. “They should have paused to take stock (of the Seagram deal), but instead they just started buying everything, and each acquisition got increasingly non-core.”

Messier ran into more problems in April when he dismissed the chief of ailing French pay TV provider Canal Plus, Pierre Lescure. Move provoked public outrage from Canal Plus employees, who put their boss on the air in a televised protest.

According to daily Liberation, Messier took the news hard, snapping at one point over the weekend that if he left, the conglom would fall apart. He added that he wasn’t the enemy — the Americans are.

“It’s going to look like a miserable plot by a group of little barons,” Messier reportedly said about his ouster.

In a move that is now seen as too little too late, Viv U sold a 6.2% stake in French construction company Vinci on Friday to European institutional investors, raising $349.5 million.

Viv U has already announced that it will reduce its stake in water and waste management unit Vivendi Environment to 40% from 63%, raising an expected $1.5 billion.

(Reuters contributed to this report.)

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