Fourtou steps back as watchdog fines Viv U

Fines reach total of $2.6 mil

PARIS — Vivendi Universal announced Tuesday that Jean-Rene Fourtou will step down as its operational chief, while separately, France’s stock market regulator fined the company and former chair Jean-Marie Messier a total of $2.6 million.

In a move designed to improve Viv U’s corporate governance, Jean-Bernard Levy, Fourtou’s former No. 2, will assume the day-to-day running of the company as chairman of a newly created management board, while Fourtou will head a new supervisory panel.

Corporate shakeup, approved by Viv U’s board of directors on the recommendation of the conglom’s own corporate governance and human resources watchdogs, must be approved by shareholders.

Meanwhile, Viv U’s turbulent past resurfaced in separate news of the two $1.3 million fines slapped on the conglom and Messier. The fallen media mogul deliberately gave out inaccurate and excessively optimistic financial information about the company during his chairmanship, declared the Authorite des Marches Financiers (AMF), France’s equivalent of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

After a two-year acquisition binge, including a $30 billion merger with Universal, the former French utilities company was on the brink of bankruptcy and weighed down by a $30 billion debt pile when Messier was ousted in 2002.

He and other former execs are under investigation by Gallic police for alleged fraud and insider trading.

Fourtou has steered the company back to financial stability in his two years as CEO, helping to slash debt via the sale of Universal and other assets. He is distancing himself from the daily running of the company at a time when there is continuing unease about the group’s accountability.

Small shareholders angered over the dramatic decline in their Viv U stock during the Messier era have been aggressively pursuing current management, too.

Fourtou was criticized recently for underselling Canal Plus Technologies — one of the first assets unloaded as Viv U struggled to emerge from its financial crisis — to Gallic tech company Thomson Multimedia. He has also been accused of paying himself too generously and of helping himself too liberally to stock options and other company perks.

The creation of a more transparent two-tier system, with supervisory board and management board, is designed to address those criticisms.

In plans that will be put to shareholders in April, Viv U’s management board will include newcomer Abdeslam Ahizoune, head of Moroccan telco subsid Maroc Telecom; Viv U chief financial officer Jacques Espinasse; Frank Esser, head of SFR-Cegetel Group; Canal Plus Group chairman Bertrand Meheut; Universal Music Group’s Doug Morris; and Viv U Games chief Rene Penisson.

The supervisory board will include current members of the board of directors.

Robert de Metz, exec VP in charge of investments and acquisitions, will lead the new strategy and development department.

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