The battle over who gets to spend Vivendi’s billions intensified today with the announcement that Vivendi chairman Vincent Bollore has upped his stake in the French media giant for the third time in recent weeks. Bollore is facing down continued pressure from activist shareholders ahead of a crucial shareholder meeting April 17. The Bollore Group has acquired a further 24.6 million Vivendi shares, raising its stake to 12.01% from 10.2%. That means Bollore has now doubled his stake in Vivendi in just over a month as he fights back, in particular, against U.S. hedge fund P. Schoenfeld Asset Management.
The U.S. hedge fund has criticised Bollore’s growing influence over the French media giant, and has called for the Vivendi board to distribute $9.7 billion to shareholders in the form of a special dividend. Vivendi’s board, on the other hand, has proposed a buyback and dividend worth $6.2 billion to investors over the medium term. P. Schoenfeld has also urged Vivendi to sell Universal Media Group, one of its remaining assets, alongside French pay TV giant Canal +.
The Vivendi board has unequivocally and publicly rejected the possibility of selling off UMG, the world’s largest music group. Bollore reportedly rejected an offer as recently as last month from John Malone’s Liberty Media for UMG. Vivendi also rejected a 2013 offer for $8.5 billion from Japan’s Softbank.
Also up for discussion is a resolution from another minority investor, PhiTrust, that wants Vivendi to exclude itself from a new French law enabling long-term shareholders such as Bollore twice as many votes as newer shareholders.
Analysts expect Bollore to continue increasing his stake, and hold, in Vivendi up until the crucial April 17 meeting, which is now set to become a referendum on Bollore’s tenure as chairman and his long-term vision for the company.
Vivendi’s management has now sent a letter to P. Schoenfeld Asset Management reminding them in forceful language of the French law prohibiting non-EU companies or individuals from owning more than 20% of a company with a television licence. That move was seen by many as a thinly veiled warning against attempting to coalesce a shareholder rebellion against the current management. “We would be forced to promptly bring legal action against you to seek joint and several damages,” said the letter, if the board was able to prove that the fund had brought together interests exceeding the 20% threshold.
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. Vivendi’s share price is currently trading at over $23 a share, representing a six-year high for the group, buoyed by asset sales generating more than $38 billion and helping pay off Vivendi’s once-hefty debt.
The group is sitting on a war chest of billions of dollars and all eyes are on what Bollore will choose to spend it on. Potential rumoured targets include everything from Rupert Murdoch’s stake in Sky Europe to Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset.
In addition to UMG, Vivendi also owns Canal + and its film division StudioCanal, which has further consolidated its position as Europe’s leading film major.
StudioCanal has enjoyed 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 $250 million, setting up a lucrative family friendly franchise for the company.