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Banking On the Future

Ex-CEO of Vivendi Universal is reestablishing himself

October 14, 2002|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — His business strategy has been debunked and his love of the spotlight lampooned. He has been ousted as head of the world's second-largest media company. His former employer has vowed not to pay him a dime in severance. And, to top it off, he and his family soon will have to give up a $17-million penthouse on Park Avenue.

Most people would slink away in humiliation. Not Jean-Marie Messier, the fallen media king turned New York exile. The former chairman and chief executive of Vivendi Universal -- who once labeled himself half-jokingly as "master of the world" -- is as self-assured and defiant as ever.

Messier sees himself largely as a victim of outside forces: market rumors, nationalistic French politicians and a coterie of powerful business leaders who turned on him.

"I didn't pay enough attention to them," Messier said in his first in-depth interview since his downfall. "When I was in a weak position they took advantage of me."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 18, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 311 words Type of Material: Correction
Messier -- A Business story Monday incorrectly reported that ex-Vivendi Universal CEO Jean-Marie Messier said he received a $5-million loan from the firm. Messier said he received the loan from French bank Societe Generale as a private client.

Still, Messier said he is not looking backward.

"I'm not looking to who betrayed me.... I'm looking forward. I have a great future in the U.S. and Europe. I want to build a new story."

The 45-year-old Messier these days is caught between two chapters in his life. He has just completed a draft of a 300-page tell-all book based on a journal he kept about his rise and fall at Vivendi and his observations about the current media market. The book, he said, was a form of therapy after the shock of losing his job. He says he isn't sure when or whether he will publish it.

Now he's turning his attention to a new, far more modest enterprise than running a global media empire. Messier, a former investment partner at French investment bank Lazard, returned to his roots last week when he incorporated what he describes as a "boutique investment bank" in Delaware. The firm, called Messier Partners, will handle private equity investments in media and other sectors.

"I've gone from 380,000 employees to just one. I know it will be a challenge.... My only revenge is my future success," he said during the two-hour interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan.

The hotel also is where Messier and his then-lieutenants negotiated some of the major media deals that transformed Vivendi from a staid 150-year-old water utility into a flashy global entertainment player and owner of one of Hollywood's hottest studios.

Success, however, eluded Messier during his two-year reign at Vivendi, where he arranged a slew of acquisitions that puzzled investors and racked up $19 billion in media-related debts. Concerns about the company's high debt, strategy and complex balance sheet spooked investors and analysts, causing a 70% fall in Vivendi's stock price before Messier's ouster in July.

Messier is mostly unapologetic about Vivendi's failures. Still looking very much the part of a jet-setting media mogul, he wore a charcoal-gray flannel suit with a mauve tie and was carrying his ever-present cell phone and oversized leather-bound daily planner.

"What's done is done," he said, appearing tanned and relaxed after a three-month hiatus from the corporate world. "I have no regrets."

He staunchly defended his business strategy for creating a global entertainment giant that combined European wireless and cable television with American movies such as the "Mummy" franchise and musical acts, from Eminem to U2.

"When I read that Vivendi has decided to continue on the track of being a global media company, I was pleased," Messier said. "As many people are saying, it's a Messier strategy without Messier."

He admits only a few significant missteps as chief of Vivendi. Among them: failure to convince French board members that they should sell off the core utility business. He also acknowledges courting too much publicity for himself by posing for magazines such as Paris Match, where he was photographed skating in Central Park.

"Vivendi attracted much more attention than it should have, in part because I was overexposed to the media," he said. "That's one thing I do regret because I know it hurt Vivendi Universal."

Despite Messier's contention that the company is following his strategy, that is not the perception inside Vivendi. His successor, Jean-Rene Fourtou, declined to comment, but sources close to the CEO said his decision to keep Vivendi in the entertainment business was more a reflection of market realities than an affirmation of Messier's goal of creating a rival to AOL Time Warner Inc.

The sources note that Fourtou already has undone key parts of the empire Messier put together -- for example, unloading the money-losing Internet venture Vizzavi. The Internet portal was a centerpiece of Messier's strategy for using mobile phones as distribution pipelines for movies, music and games.

Messier would not comment specifically on the financial crisis he left behind, but he said the company was hurt most by unsubstantiated market rumors.

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