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EDITIONS
Monday, 28 October, 2002, 21:07 GMT
Vivendi wins Cegetel bid breather
Jean-Rene Fourtou
New boss Jean-Rene Fourtou is trying to raise cash
Media conglomerate Vivendi Universal has won precious time in its bid to gain control of the French telecoms group Cegetel.

A French court has granted Vivendi, which already owns 44% of Cegetel, an extra month to raise the funds necessary to make an offer for the smaller stakes held by BT Group and SBC.

Vivendi is trying to raise the cash to match a bid from the mobile phone giant Vodafone, which has offered 6bn euros (3.8bn; $5.9bn) for the combined holdings of BT and SBC.

However, a number of investors are keen to see Vodafone not only win the minority holdings, but also buy out Vivendi's 44% stake.

This would provide Vivendi with much-needed cash to reduce its 20bn euros debt pile - a burden that recently triggered the sacking of chief executive Jean-Marie Messier.

Race against time

Cegetel owns the successful mobile-phone operator SFR, France's second-largest mobile phone group which both Vivendi and Vodafone are keen to add to their stable.

Vodafone hopes that its 6.1bn euros bid is enough to win BT's 26% stake and US group SBC's 15% in Cegetel.

At the very least, Vivendi will need to raise 4bn euros to buy out BT's stake.

Jean-Marie Messier, former chairman, Vivendi Universal
Jean-Marie Messier built up large debts

The French court has now granted the troubled French conglomerate another 30 days to raise the necessary funds, meaning neither BT nor SBC can accept Vodafone's offer before 10 December.

Vivendi, under the leadership of new chief executive Jean Rene Fourtou, has already been busy selling off assets in a bid to reduce its enormous debt.

The debts were stacked up under former chief executive Jean-Marie Messier, who transformed the company from a water and sewage firm into a global media and environmental services group.

Last year, it sold its L'Express-L'Expansion magazine arm and it is currently in negotiations with private equity group Blackstone Group to sell its Houghton Miffler publishing business for 1.75bn euros.

Sensible move?

However, some investors are concerned that Vivendi will be over-stretching itself with the Cegetel purchase.

Vodafone has already offered 6.8bn euros for Vivendi's 44% stake in Cegetel and many shareholders think it should take the cash.

"The market wants them to take the money from Vodafone," said one analyst.

Vodafone said on Monday it would not comment on the court ruling until it had seen it in writing.

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