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Hollywood Player With a French Twist

Media: Vivendi Universal CEO Jean-Marie Messier seems to relish his increasingly high profile in the U.S.

January 11, 2002|RICHARD VERRIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For French media tycoon Jean-Marie Messier, his Hollywood moment had arrived.

There he was at the lectern of the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton on Thursday, talking up his company's achievements in a mix of bravado and humor as he sought to charm an American audience of business and civic leaders, most of whom had never heard the Frenchman before.

The 45-year-old chairman and chief executive of Vivendi Universal was the guest speaker at a Town Hall Los Angeles forum, joining an exclusive club of media moguls who've been invited to speak, including Viacom Inc. CEO Sumner Redstone and former AOL Time Warner Inc. CEO Gerald Levin.

A Hollywood outsider whose vision for Vivendi has faced skepticism from U.S. investors, Messier is now the man of the moment after orchestrating a series of high-profile strategic moves, including the $10.3-billion acquisition of USA Networks Inc.'s entertainment businesses, that have thrust Vivendi Universal into the top ranks of entertainment companies.

"We invited him because he is the new power player in Hollywood,'' said Deborah Weinberg, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles nonprofit group that organizes forums featuring prominent business and political leaders.

The event essentially marked Messier's coming-out party in Los Angeles and drew about 600 business and civic leaders, much larger than other recent turnouts, organizers said.

In an speech that lasted more than half an hour, Messier outlined the vision for his company, declared his love for America and his new home in New York, and boasted about his company's rise from an obscure water utility to a "tier one'' media player.

"Vivendi is a mover and will remain a mover," said Messier, appearing relaxed and casual. He wore an open-collared, shrimp-colored shirt beneath a charcoal-gray suit that displayed pins of intertwined French and American flags.

"We would like nothing more to move ahead and beat our competitors," he said.

Though Vivendi has been on a buying spree, the company has no major expansions planned in 2002, he said. Messier also praised Universal executives and dismissed speculation that he and Barry Diller, the new head of Universal's movie, theme park and television divisions, will be at odds.

"I don't care about egos," he said. "I do care about talent. Barry is a very strong and talented man."

Messier also defended his criticism of the French system of cultural protectionism, saying Vivendi stands for "cultural diversity."

Messier poured on the charm, variously praising American movies and culture--even California wine. Before his speech he worked the audience, walking from table to table to introduce himself to journalists and various entertainment business executives.

"He's a real new face in town and lot of people are curious," said Yvette Herrera, a manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers who works in the entertainment industry. "For many of us, this was our first opportunity to see him. I found him charming. He clearly articulated his product."

Relishing his high profile in the U.S., Messier said: "As we get to know one another, I feel that fewer and fewer people think I'm [New York Rangers hockey star] Mark Messier."

Messier, who is married with five children, was born in Grenoble, the son of an accountant.

After graduating from prestigious Ecole Nationale d'Administration school for civil servants, he went to work for the French government and later became an investment banker.

In 1994 he joined French water utility Compagnie Generale des Eaux, transforming the 147-year-old utility into a global media and entertainment company.

Messier was virtually unknown in Hollywood until a year ago, when Vivendi acquired Canada's Seagram Co., which owned Universal Pictures and Universal Group, in a deal valued at $30 billion.

And in the last year, his company has aggressively expanded its presence in the U.S. with a string of acquisitions--Houghton Mifflin, online music service MP3.com and USA's entertainment assets.

For all its U.S. expansion, Vivendi still faces a challenge selling its message on Wall Street.

To build a higher profile in the U.S., Messier moved into a $17-million Park Avenue apartment in New York and has used every opportunity to explain Vivendi to the media.

"Even though we're a young year-old baby, we can surprise you," he said.

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