Levy lifted to CEO, Fourtou tapped for chair

PARIS — Vivendi Universal shareholders gave the thumbs up Thursday to a management reshuffle that will see Jean-Rene Fourtou, the chairman and CEO credited with bringing the media conglom back from the brink of disaster, hand over part of his title to chief operating officer Jean-Bernard Levy.

Levy will become CEO and take over day-to-day operations, making him the second chief exec since the downfall of Jean-Marie Messier, whose acquisitive style landed Viv U $47 billion in debt.

Fourtou, who remains chairman, slimmed Viv U down to a media and telecom company through aggressive sales. Viv U announced Wednesday that it was in the black after three years of losses.

At an annual general meeting in Paris, Levy, who is known for his conservative style, reassured shareholders that his reign would look nothing like that of Messier’s.

“We will concentrate on organic growth. We do not have a target of making major acquisitions, and we do not see any major acquisition for at least the next two years,” Levy said. “Our priority will be to increase the Vivendi Universal share price. There is room for significant growth.”

Levy also said Viv U would not sell off Universal Music, a move that has been speculated in the press. Music arm helped push the company back into the black, with an operating profit in 2004 of $609.4 million, substantially higher than analysts’ expectations and outperforming the market.

As chairman, Fourtou still wields power within the company and is likely to be a guiding force in Levy’s decision-making.

Levy will have to steer pay TV subsid Canal Plus through several challenges, including the introduction of digital terrestrial television in Gaul.

Also requiring Levy’s attention is a possible deal between Canal Plus and French media company Lagardere.

Lagardere holds a 34% stake in Canal Satellite, Canal Plus’ satcaster. But since last fall, the two companies have been toying with the idea of an exchange of those shares for a stake in Canal Plus.

Levy threw cold water on the idea Thursday.

“While having decided to keep exclusive control of the Canal Plus Group, we have been favorable to the idea of the Lagardere Group becoming a shareholder in Canal Plus and not just Canal Satellite. But it is uncertain whether this idea will come to anything,” he said.

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