Viv U vigorous as profits return

Music lifts conglom out of the red

PARIS — Several billion dollars in assets sales, along with an upbeat perf at Universal Music, boosted Vivendi Universal into the black in 2004 after three years of losses.

Gallic conglom earned e754 million (about $1 billion) as execs announced the first dividend in four years. Viv U lost $857 million the year before.

Cash flow rose 41% to $4.7 billion, bettering forecasts, on revenues of $28.9 billion.

Outgoing chairman Jean-Rene Fourtou hailed the results and the 80¢-per-share payout as “a new era for Vivendi Universal.”

Fourtou plans to step down next month, having guided Viv U through a tumultuous period following the reign of Jean-Marie Messier. Through intense diplomacy and an aggressive sale of assets, Fourtou pulled Vivendi back from the brink of bankruptcy.

Last year, he exited Hollywood, selling U to NBC as part of a drive to pay down debts that had spiraled to a crippling $47 billion. The figure was down to a more manageable $4 billion by the end of 2004.

Company books also benefited from a new, more favorable tax regime in 2004.

“My mission is now accomplished,” Fourtou proclaimed. “It took 2½ years to turn around Vivendi Universal and build a solid base in media and telecoms.”

Fourtou said despite the conglom’s newfound financial stability, it would not be seeking fresh investment fields.

On a sector-by-sector basis, Gallic telco SFR-Cegetel, the group’s biggest earner, brought in the lion’s share of the cash in 2004, with operating profit up 18% to $3 billion.

But the smaller music division produced the most surprising results. Bestselling albums by the likes of U2, Eminem and Scissor Sisters helped the unit garner operating profit of $609.4 million, substantially higher than analyst expectations and outperforming the market.

Canal Plus Group posted operating profit of $266 million, with French pay TV revs up 18% on a comparable basis to $203 million due to rising revenues and operational cost-cutting.

DVD sales and theatrical ticket sales pushed operating profit up 57% to $51 million at StudioCanal, the paybox’s film production and distribution subsid.

Vivendi Universal Games was still in the red, posting an operational loss of $246 million in 2004. Viv U said the figure included writeoffs and other one-time costs to the tune of $128 million. Unit posted a fourth-quarter operating profit of $2.7 million, compared to a year-earlier loss of $122 million, an improvement due in part to the success of its new “World of Warcraft” game.

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