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Friday, 19 July, 2002, 14:37 GMT 15:37 UK
The rise and fall of Jean-Marie Messier
Jean-Marie Messier
Jean-Marie Messier: Undermined by his addiction to deals


Jean-Marie Messier had the ambition to take over the world.

He took over a sleepy French water company and within five years had turned it into the second biggest media conglomerate on earth - Vivendi Universal.

The ultimate goal clearly was to make from Vivendi Universal the global media leader of the future.

To achieve this he adopted a brash American style that was unheard of in French business.

He was someone who was certainly not afraid to do anything to be first, to dominate others and to get rid of anyone who gets in his way.

But a few weeks ago Mr Messier was forced to resign - his dream in tatters - deserted by his US partners and despised in France.

Early ambitions

His journey started in Grenoble, where he was born the son of an accountant, grandson of a chauffeur.


You didn't notice him (Mr Messier) straight away but he was a student who wanted to get somewhere

Jacques Audoux
Mr Messier's former maths teacher
Maths teacher Jacques Audoux recalls the young Messier preparing for entrance exams for France's top business school - the Ecole Polytechnique.

"I quickly got the impression that he was a serious and hardworking student," Mr Audoux says.

"You didn't notice him straight away but he was a student who wanted to get somewhere."

Sure enough, the young Mr Messier got excellent results, but they still were not good enough to earn him entrance to the Ecole Polytechnique.

He decided to resit his exams, something then unheard of.

"I thought that he was really taking a risk," Mr Audoux says.

"After the year, he could really have ended up with nothing. He might have not got a place anywhere."

Paris bound

But Mr Messier was determined to succeed, and succeed he did.


He got the reputation of someone who was a very quick thinker, someone who knew how to bring things together

Helene Pilichowski
Journalist
He earned a place at the Ecole Polytechnique, and graduated with flying colours.

From there, he headed for Paris, and the Ecole Nationale d'Administation (ENA), the finishing school of the French elite.

Still he faced challenges. Oil company Total turned down his application for sponsorship through Harvard Business School.

Mr Messier's handwriting, Total said, showed he lacked ambition.

Growing reputation

So he moved instead to his first establishment job. He rose up the finance ministry, becoming the youngest head of a ministerial cabinet.

A top job in politics beckoned. But Mr Messier chose the private sector instead, joining investment bank Lazard, where he became a partner.

Journalist Helene Pilichowski says: "He was someone who was having an exceptional career. He was growing in power very quickly.

"He got the reputation of someone who was a very quick thinker, someone who knew how to bring things together."

Sleeping giant

Founded by Napoleon III in 1853, Compagnie Generale des Eaux (CGE) was a classically French company. It was not flamboyant, but it was rich.


When you control media it's like when you control the world - that's what Messier wanted to do

Nathalie Pelras, media analyst at Richelieu Finance
Mr Messier saw his opportunity.

In 1994, he joined as chief executive, outmanoeuvring rivals to secure the chairmanship two years later.

Mr Messier regarded CGE as old fashioned and unimaginative - a symbol, as he saw it, of French business culture.

He wasted no time before beginning his revolution.

Deal addiction

Cutting deals, he started to transform CGE into something more in his own image.

He sold off the parts he deemed obsolete and waded into the glamorous world of media.

His first big decision was to increase Vivendi's stake in Canal Plus, the pay TV station that is to France the epitome of high culture.

At one point Messier was averaging more than a deal a month.

It became a habit he could not kick.

Nathalie Pelras, media analyst at Richelieu Finance, says: "When you control media it's like when you control the world.

"That's what Messier wanted to do."

Self image

Branding was everything.

In 1998, Messier ditched a century and a half of tradition, by abandoning the name Compagnie General des Eaux in favour of Vivendi.

Financial Times journalist Jo Johnson says: "At that point it was clear that Messier was sending a signal to the world that 'this is a new company, we are rebranding ourselves and we are ready for the media industry.

"'And we are gradually going to become a pure media and telecoms player'."

And Messier was loving the spotlight.

His autobiography, J6M dot com said it all. The six ms stood for Jean-Marie Messier, Moi Meme, Maitre du Monde, or, in English, "Me, Myself, Master of the Universe".

Mr Messier had become the most famous businessman France had ever produced.

Praise from the top

Mr Messier knew that to make it as a global media player he had to conquer America.


Some people said that by buying into Hollywood that he was putting at risk France's own cultural heritage

FT journalist Jo Johnson
He set his sights on the glamour of Hollywood and the money of New York.

In June 2000, he announced a $34bn-merger with Seagram, a drinks firm turned media player.

He also completed the buy-out of Canal Plus.

Together with Edgar Bronfman jnr, Seagram's boss, and Pierre Lescure, head of Canal Plus, Messier created Vivendi Universal, the world's second largest media company.

President Chirac rang him to congratulate him.

Mr Messier was feted for putting France back on the map of the US dominated media industry.

For France, fearful of US cultural imperialism, this was an important moment.

Shift in opinion

Slowly, though, doubts emerged.


It really could not have gone down worse to see the chief executive up sticks altogether and depart for the States

Jo Johnson
Could a Frenchman really call the shots in the US? And if he could, what price to his reputation back home?

Ms Johnson says: "Some people said that by buying into Hollywood that he was putting at risk France's own cultural heritage.

"Effectively it was going to be a takeover by the Americans of the French media industry."

Mr Messier was becoming a symbol for the slow death of French culture at the hands of globalisation.

Almost overnight, Messier managed to shift French opinion against him. The fireworks were about to begin.

Bad move

One single act by Messier alienated himself from even his own supporters.

It was his decision to move himself and his family out to America - to New York's Park Avenue.

For him it was proof that he had finally made it as a global player. As he put it, the French flag had been planted on American soil.

But the French saw him as a traitor.

"It really could not have gone down worse to see the chief executive up sticks altogether and depart for the States," Ms Johnson says.

Cultural protection

Vivendi was now being increasingly seen as a threat to the purity of French culture - and especially to its obligations towards home grown cinema.

In France, at least 40% of all TV and radio shows have to be in French.

Former culture minister Catherine Tasca says: "We in France say that culture has an essential place in our society.

"If we don't want it to become banal or homogenised by world commerce then we have the right and the duty to put up protective barriers to allow our creative culture to exist."

'Mental aberration'

But Mr Messier was busily tearing barriers down. The deal making continued relentlessly.

And at a press conference for a tie-up with USA Networks, he declared that France's cultural exception was dead.

That was the ultimate insult to his homeland.

People reacted with surprise and anger.

President Chirac described his remark as a "mental aberration".

Scepticism grows

And Mr Messier's business strategy was also being called into question.

Like the Americans around him, Messier had become a compulsive risk taker.

To satisfy his hunger for hi-tech companies, he had been dumping millions of shares onto the market instead of paying for acquisitions with cash.

This was fine as long as the share price remained high and the dot com hype persisted.

But Richelieu Finance's Nathalie Pelras said: "Little by little the market started to wake up and say 'OK we invest we trusted you but we cannot see anything positive now of your strategy'."

Huge loss

Mr Messier over-reached himself. As the dot-com bubble burst he found himself with battered stock, a pile of debt and a strategy in tatters.

The markets started to fall. Mr Messier's personal and corporate stock nose-dived.

Last year, Vivendi recorded the largest single loss in French corporate history on the back of a $14bn write down.

Popularity plummets

And just when Messier needed to hold on to his friends in high places, he did the unthinkable.

In April he fired the head of Canal Plus, Pierre Lescure.

There was open revolt. Canal Plus staff stormed the television studios, stopping programming and broadcasting their protest live on air.

With Mr Lescure gone, staff feared an end to their editorial freedom.

The FT's Jo Johnson says: "Mr Messier underestimated the extent to which sacking Mr Lescure would bring to surface own unpopularity. He really became public enemy number one."

On his own

A week later, at Vivendi's annual general meeting, Mr Messier stood trial for his corporate life.

He defended himself, and got as close as he seemingly could to apologising.

While he survived, US members of Vivendi's board were closing in on him.

Philippe Le Corre says: "People on his board were convinced that his strategy wasn't working - he had been buying too many brands, too many companies, selling the ones that were making money."

Next to desert him were his older established French friends on the board.

Mr Chirac got involved, sending his business allies to put pressure on Messier and stoke a public debate about his replacement.

End of an era

On 1 July, Mr Messier finally resigned.

His departure marked the end of an era, and the new bosses at Vivendi moved quickly to expunge all traces of him.

As the scale of the losses emerged, Mr Messier's successors began to break up the giant he had built and turn it back into a more solid, more steady, more traditionally French company.

Comeback?

And what of Messier himself?

His downfall is a tale of hubris getting the better of a sharp mind.

He over-exposed his company by buying too much too fast, and over-exposed himself by mocking French cultural traditions.

But will it be the last we will hear of Jean-Marie Messier?

Helene Pilichowski says: "In France we don't throw our stars away as quickly as that - look at our president who we thought was a lost man and has now been reinstated.

"So I'm sure that a man as intelligent as Jean-Marie Messier will reconquer his country.

"It won't be easy, but he will come back."

See also:

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24 Jun 02 | Business
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