Fortou Appointed to Steer Vivendi Off the Rocks

04 July 2002

Jean-René Fourtou (63), deputy chairman of pharmaceuticals giant Aventis and pillar of the French business establishment, was on Wednesday appointed to succeed Jean-Marie Messier as chief executive of troubled Franco-US media giant Vivendi Universal.

Something of a national icon for his success as an pioneer in France’s privatisation programme back in the mid-80s, Fourtou transformed the French group Rhône-Poulenc from a sick and ailing nationalised company into a highly successful and dynamic private enterprise – the seventh largest pharmaceutical and chemical group worldwide. Media observers are asking if he can now repeat the feat with the sick and ailing Vivendi.

Emerging from semi-retirement, Fourtou yesterday expressed his confidence that Vivendi will resolve its current liquidity problems [he is unlikely to have accepted the job without an appropriate assurance from the group’s bankers] and vowed immediate action. “In the next two weeks, all possible measures will be taken to improve the situation, particularly in respect of the short-term cash position,” he said.

Meantime, as Vivendi’s share price continued to plummet on Wednesday, closing down a further 21.9 per cent to €13.90, the group issued a statement revealing it could call on €1.2 billion in cash, and a further €1.6 billion in unused credit lines.

Messier, who did not attend the board meeting, is said to be busy hiring a fleet of armoured vans to carry home his payoff, reportedly in the region of €18 million ($17.61m; £11.54m).

Despite yesterday’s continued stock freefall, the entrail-rakers were apparently satisfied at the outcome. Merrill Lynch’ s London stockbrocking arm rated Vivendi a “strong buy”, in the belief that Messier’s exit has guaranteed support from the group’s bankers. J P Morgan's crystal ball also rated Vivendi a “buy’’, but the firm continued to express concern over the liquidity position and the unknown nature of any future strategy.

Data sourced from: The Times (London); additional content by WARC staff