Vivendi chairman Vincent Bollore is being urged to sell off the company’s Universal Music Group by activist shareholder P Schoenfeld Asset Management to boost the company’s profitability and share price. Universal Media Group, which is currently 100% owned by Vivendi, is the world’s largest music group. Bollore reportedly rejected an offer as recently as last week from John Malone’s Liberty Media for UMG. Vivendi also rejected a 2013 offer for $8.5 billion from Japan’s Softbank.
P Schoenfeld Asset Management, which owns 0.8% of Vivendi, is believed to be dissatisfied with both Vivendi’s share price as well as Bollore’s growing influence over the French media giant. Bollore has streamlined Vivendi ever since he first made public his intention to acquire a 5% stake in 2012. Since then Bollore has overseen the sales of Vivendi’s stakes in telcos SFR in France and Maroc Telecom in Morocco, as well as video game publisher Activision Blizzard. Vivendi’s share price has risen more than 30% since September 2012 as a result.
Some gripes have emerged in recent days, however, following the sale of Vivendi’s remaining 20% stake in French cable co. Numericable-SFR for $4.4 billion to Altice, with the deal only representing two-thirds of the share price at the time.
Regardless, that deal, along with the other divestments, leaves Vivendi sitting on a cash pile of around $15 billion with two key strategic assets under its umbrella: Pay TV group Canal + and Universal Media Group.
P Schoenfeld Asset Management has since stated it will submit two resolutions proposing that Vivendi distribute $10bn to shareholders in the form of a special dividend. Vivendi’s board, on the other hand, have proposed a buyback and dividend worth $6.2 billion to investors over the medium term.
“PSAM believes that Vivendi is significantly undervalued due to its excessive cash holdings, inadequate capital return policy and the uncertainty over Vivendi’s future use of its capital,” it said in a statement.
Bollore, known as a savvy, ruthless investor, is fighting back along with the Vivendi board.
“Arnaud de Puyfontaine, Chairman of the Management Board, has made it clear on several occasions, and notably at a conference in London on 17th March, that UMG is not for sale and, along with Canal+ Group, constitute the strategic pillars in the building of a major industrial media and content group,” said a Vivendi statement. “The Vivendi Management Board also wishes to stress that the majority of shareholders met recently are satisfied with the medium term strategy enabling the Group to create value through an ambitious internal and external development plan. The return to shareholders is intended to amount to 5.7 billion euros, which seems well balanced, keeping the 1 euro dividend for a period of three years and a potential share buy-back of 2.7 billion euros at a maximum share price of 20 euros.”
The boardroom battle may lead to Bollore expediting his expected acquisitions and expansion spree. In February, Franco-Tunisian media mogul Tarak Ben Ammar and Havas Media Group France chief exec Dominique Delport were proposed to join the supervisory board of Vivendi. The moves, expected to be ratified and confirmed at the Vivendi shareholders’ meeting in May, represent a further consolidation of the chairman’s vision for the group. The duo, both Bollore allies, will almost certainly have an impact on the future direction of Vivendi. It seems inevitable the group will expand in the coming months given its cash reserves and focus on core media plays, particularly in a time of strategic consolidation in Europe as telcos and the likes of Netflix and Amazon vie for supremacy over content creation and distribution with more traditional platforms.
Vivendi’s share price is currently trading at over $23 a share, representing a six year high for the group.
Vivendi’s Canal + has seen its film division Studio Canal enjoy its most successful year to date, under the leadership of CEO Olivier Courson, with the likes of Liam Neeson-starrer Non-Stop, The Imitation Game, Shaun The Sheep and, most spectacularly, Paddington. The latter film, based on Michael Bond’s much-loved book series and produced by Harry Potter producer David Heyman, was StudioCanal’s most ambitious to date with a budget of $55 million. StudioCanal fully financed the film, which has been a bona fide hit worldwide with grosses to date in excess of $200 million, setting up a lucrative family friendly franchise for the company.
Rumors have been growing in recent months that Bollore, poised to become the most powerful exec in Europe’s shifting media landscape, has been eyeing potential acquisition opportunities. Possible targets include Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset in Italy, where the billionaire Bollore already has significant business interests, as well as even more tantalisingly Rupert Murdoch’s 39% stake in Sky Europe.
Though largely speculation at this point, it underscores the extent to which Europe’s media landscape is set to undergo seismic shifts in 2015. Deep pocketed telcos such as BT and Telefonica, not to mention the likes of John Malone’s Discovery, Netflix and Amazon, are challenging the more traditional players in the latest surge of consolidation and multi-play offerings to viewers. It is telling that Malone would make a play for Universal Media Group through his Liberty Media conglom and equally predictable that Vivendi would, initially at least, resist.