Person of the Week: Jean-Marie Messier

  • Share
  • Read Later

Out the door: Jean-Marie Messier

The French are very different from you and me. Except for former Vivendi Universal chair Jean-Marie Messier. He wanted to be just like a high-flying American CEO, and that (along, of course, with a 70 percent drop in the price of the company's stock since the beginning of this year) is what got him in trouble with his board and the French people. His forced resignation Tuesday sent shock waves throughout markets on both sides of the Atlantic. Shares in Vivendi fell as much as 40 percent on the Paris Stock Exchange that day as Le Monde questioned the company's accounting practices and Moody's cut Vivendi's credit rating to junk bond status. In New York, other big media stocks tumbled as well, including AOL Time Warner (corporate overlord of this writer) on renewed fears that the accounting for such large, multidimensional companies had become too hard to follow. By Friday the stocks had made an uneasy recovery — the prices of AOL and Vivendi returned to the levels they had been at before the Messier announcement — but the questions remained. And so, for his week in which he rocked the markets and renewed questions about the nature of our digitally-converging future, Jean-Marie Messier is our Person of the Week.

The man known throughout France as J2M is a former water-company executive who became a French business celebrity by turning the sleepy water utility Compagnie Generale des Eaux into a $51 billion global media giant, Vivendi Universal. Messier did it with a six-year buying spree that brought Universal Studios, USA networks and a number of European media and telecom companies into the fold. His promise was to create a company that "will be the world's preferred creator and provider of personalized information, entertainment and services to consumers anywhere, at any time and across all distribution platforms and devices."

That's a tall order, especially in the post dot-com bust. The company's performance has been dogged by its $17.1 billion in debt from all those acquisitions, and by questions familiar to many big media conglomerates these days: How do you really evaluate such complex entities? Vivendi's holdings are more disparate than most; they include the water company, a movie studio, a telecom provider and a book publisher. While the company is by some measures outperforming its competitors (the company reported 17 percent revenue growth last quarter, compared with 7 percent growth at AOL and a 2 percent decline from Disney), it has also had some very bad news. In March Vivendi reported 2001 losses of 13.6 euros — the largest such loss in French history.

If Messier's first mistake was in perhaps biting off more companies than he could easily digest, his fundamental error in France was that he made enemies along the way with his insistence that American business culture was the future model that Vivendi would have to follow to be successful, a notion that rankled coming from a man who led both France's public water utility and one of its cultural centerpoints, the pay-TV company Canal Plus.

It didn't help Messier's case when he moved his primary residence to New York and started giving interviews saying that the beloved "cultural exception," subsidies granted by the French government to domestic filmmakers and other artists, was an outdated idea. In April things reached a point of no return when Messier fired Pierre Lescure, the popular president of the money-losing Canal Plus.

Messier leaves full of regret. In a farewell memo to Vivendi employees he says he's leaving the company in order to save it, and pleads that his successor be given the time and freedom to implement policies that Messier himself believes he did not have. And, he says, people should feel free to email him. At his America Online address.