Bollore breaks cover

The enigmatic power-broker talks to John Tylee and lifts the lid on the battle for Havas, his plans for the future and why he dislikes being labelled a corporate raider.

Who is Vincent Bollore and why do the world's communication supergroups regard the self-crowned and super-rich Havas chairman with a combination of curiosity, apprehension and a soupcon of fear?

Even the WPP chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell, no pussycat himself when it comes to business, recently paid the billionaire industrialist a high compliment by describing him as somebody "I wouldn't want to upset".

The first question is easy to answer. Bollore is a Brittany-born investor and entrepreneur who rescued his family's paper business from the brink of extinction and used it as the launch-pad for a commercial empire that embraces transportation (he controls the entire Cameroon railway system), plastics, fuel distribution and airport ticket scanners, and which has a turnover of £4.3 billion.

Along the way he has accumulated vast wealth. Forbes magazine ranks him the 292nd richest man in the world, with an estimated personal fortune of £1.6 billion.

Last year, he completed what may turn out to be his defining deal when he won the protracted showdown for effective control of Havas. Not only has his victory propelled him out of relative anonymity and into the centre of the global communications stage, but it could also be the catalyst that transforms him into France's next media magnate.

The second question, however, demands a more complex response.

Meet the man himself, jacket flung casually across his shoulder and sauntering through the reception area of the Havas headquarters in the Paris suburb of Suresnes, and it immediately becomes hard to reconcile the reputation with the reality.

His tanned complexion (the by-product of spare time spent yachting, skiing and playing tennis), sleek grey hair, fiftysomething good looks and friendly charm belie the perception of him beyond France as an enigmatic and somewhat sinister power-broker.

This collective view of him was reinforced further by his steadfast refusal to break cover and declare his intentions in the tug-of-war for Havas.

"He plays his cards very close to his chest," a one-time business associate declares. "Nobody ever really knows what he is going to do."

Bollore (Bollo to his friends) reacts to the picture painted of him with mock surprise. "Why should anybody be scared of me?" he grins. "I'm actually a very charming guy."

Charm is what he is currently dishing out by the truckload at Suresnes.

Bollore spends part of almost every day in his fifth-floor office, which overlooks a busy stretch of the Seine. He says he expects to continue doing so for the immediate future, providing physical reassurance to staff (there are 15,000 of them worldwide) battered by so much takeover turbulence.

But it seems appropriate that the racecourse at Longchamps is just a short canter away - cynics are still offering good odds that he will not be at Havas for the long haul. "He gets bored quite quickly," somebody who knows him well remarks.

Looking at Bollore's track record, it is easy to understand the scepticism.

His modus operandi, exemplified by his stalking of Havas, has usually involved gradually increasing his stake in a company, putting pressure on management to address weaknesses and exiting with a healthy profit as share prices peak on hopes of an improved performance.

His smash-and-grab raid on Pathe was typical of him. In fact, he is rather pleased with his sobriquet, "The Breton Buccaneer". "If that's what people want to call me, I don't mind," he says.

Havas, though, is unlike any other company that has ever been under Bollore's command. It is among the top six global communications groups (albeit an habitual under-achiever) and competes in a market where continuity and stability are vital to long-term client relationships.

Onlookers ask if Bollore really understands the nature of the beast he must tame. They also question whether his brand of commercial prowess can work equally well in the less tangible businesses of marketing and media. "He has an extraordinary financial brain, but he's yet to prove he is a great manager," one leading figure in the Paris business community says.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt Bollore's arrival on the scene is provoking some nervousness. Not least because there has never been anybody quite like him before - even in the context of France's almost Masonic commercial world, he does not conform to the usual stereotype. For a start, he never went through France's brutal higher education system. Instead, he quit the failing family paper-making business, Bollore Papeteries, as a youth to work for a Paris investment bank while studying law by night.

He was still in his twenties when he bought the business back from the financier Edmond de Rothschild for one franc. It was the first piece of wheeling and dealing on the road that would eventually lead him to Havas.

It would be a mistake to suggest Bollore is completely ignorant of the way marketing communications work. Indeed, he is eager to point out the fit between his newest acquisition and his wider family of companies. "I'm not at all troubled," he insists. "Havas may be a different business but there are similarities. Our other companies, too, advise their clients on getting their products in the right place at the right time and at the right price."

Moreover, agency chiefs have always had a place at the heart of French business circles. Bollore was well known to Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, the founder of Publicis, the Havas group's most deadly rival. Now, some observers believe he is determined to become a significant counterbalance to the enormous power and influence wielded in France by Maurice Levy, the Publicis Groupe chairman.

Even Levy concedes that Bollore's Havas will be a potent force. "Bollore has the financial expertise and has already shown his commitment to Havas," he says. "He will be a formidable competitor."

Why does Bollore think he makes rivals uncomfortable? He claims it has much to do with his group's boldness and a flexibility that is born out of the fact that it uses its own money and is not handicapped by a dependence on the financial markets.

"We don't always say what we are going to do," he says, in obvious reference to his silence as he circled Havas. "But we always do what we say we will. We've been very faithful to our friends and very tough on our competitors."

What may be less obvious is how much Bollore is driven by pride in his family's achievements and his desire to extend them. His is the sixth generation of a bourgeois family from the far west of France, and he delights in talking about his 19th-century forebears - one a ship's doctor who sailed to China, another a gold medallist at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

On 6 June, he will launch Direct Soir, a 28-page free evening newspaper with a circulation of between 300,000 and 400,000 copies, distributed five days a week in Paris and several large provincial towns. The date was not chosen at random. When Allied forces landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944, two of Bollore's uncles were among the 177 Frenchmen who splashed ashore with them. The launch date is in their honour, he says. And you know he means it.

It remains to be seen whether Direct Soir proves to be a significant building block in the construction of a media empire. Bollore has already expressed interest in the newspaper Liberation (much to the apparent chagrin of its left-leaning journalists). "We've spoken with Liberation rather than flirted with it," he says. "But we've done that with others as well. We don't rule out making an investment in future."

Of course, powerful men are drawn to media like moths to a flame, and some say Bollore is no different. His launch of Direct 8, a general-interest TV channel on TNT, has fuelled speculation that he aspires to emulate Vivendi Universal's Jean-Marie Messier (though avoiding the latter's Icarus-like fall, of course).

But Bollore insists creating a media empire is not an end in itself for him, although it could be the consequence of his strategy of building companies into positions where they dominate niche markets. He claims that doing this, rather than simply doing deals, is what gives him the adrenaline rush.

"It goes beyond money, I have quite enough of that," he says. "I've got the boat, the house and the paintings on my walls." Others, though, are not so sure. "Bollore is more interested in pulling off the coup than in managing something stable," somebody who knows him well observes.

Meanwhile, he enjoys having the flexibility to indulge his passion for more quixotic ventures. He has spent the past 14 years exploiting his group's world-leading position as a manufacturer of capacitors, which store electricity, to develop a battery suitable for powering cars.

The former Formula One driver Alain Prost has been testing a prototype vehicle, but Bollore remains unsure whether his pet project will be a commercial success. "If I didn't control the group, I would have been fired," he admits. "Shareholders would have been asking why we were spending money in such a way."

This kind of flexibility is essential to the way Bollore works. He dislikes being dubbed a corporate raider, pointing to the group of diversified operating companies he has acquired and developed. Nevertheless, he likes to keep his financial pot perpetually topped up and ready for the right investment opportunity.

With such a business strategy, he acknowledges that people remain sceptical about his intentions concerning Havas - although not, he insists, staff and clients - and that his assurances about a permanent commitment will have to be matched by action.

So far, everything Bollore has done indicates he regards Havas as his flagship and his legacy. The place has a rich heritage while representing a terrific challenge, he says. And even if his three sons and one daughter never actually run the company, they will cer-tainly remain its biggest shareholders, he promises. Sorrell is also sure Bollore is in media for the duration.

"Everything he has done so far convinces me that he is very serious about Havas," he says.

Sceptics argue that he has little choice but to stay and fix Havas if his reputation is to remain intact. He has earmarked more than £200 million for the group and is adamant it will get whatever financial resources it needs. "Not only is he heavily committed financially, but he has fought for the right to become Havas chairman," a leading French businessman says. "He has only one way out of Havas - and that's at the top."

Whether or not Bollore originally saw Havas as another chance to make a fast buck, only he knows. He suggests that his early intention had been to offer a helping hand and that he only began playing hard-ball when that hand was pushed away.

Under Alain de Pouzilhac, the group, whose operating companies include Arnold Worldwide Partners in the US and Euro RSCG, not only struggled to keep up with larger conglomerates such as Publicis Groupe, WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic, but found itself increasingly at the mercy of smaller and more agile rivals.

The story of how Bollore gained control of it exemplifies his single-mindedness. After initially welcoming his involvement, de Pouzilhac gradually realised he had a cuckoo in his nest. Even worse, the Bollore bird refused to sing about his intentions.

"Our silence was deliberate," Bollore explains. "We thought the Havas management was very poor, and the figures proved it. But I didn't want to shoot myself in the foot by saying what I thought because it would not have been very positive for the company, and very rude to the people within it."

In Bollore's view, Havas had lost the plot. From a time five years previously when it was the same size as Publicis, it had shrunk to a point where it was one-third of its size. What's more, its bid for Grey Global Group reinforced his belief that the group's acquisition policy was ill-conceived.

"Havas had already demonstrated it wasn't able to control and develop acquisitions, especially in the US, where it lost a fantastic amount of money," he asserts. "I've never said Grey wasn't a good opportunity for Havas, only that Havas had neither the money nor the management to take it on."

Inevitably, the battle became one of individual wills. Does Bollore hold de Pouzilhac responsible for Havas' plight? "I've nothing against him personally," he says. "But I feel he behaved stupidly and that there was a need for change."

Critics accuse Bollore of throwing stones while living in a glasshouse, having blasted Havas for not improving its corporate structures when his own are Byzantine.

Bollore agrees his operation is complex, mainly because of its history of mergers and acquisitions. It also reflects the caution that has always tempered his buccaneering style.

"We still have ten listed companies and our structure needs improving and cleaning up," he agrees. "How-ever, while it may not be efficient in the long term, it is safer. We don't like having all our eggs in one basket."

While it is too early to judge the Bollore effect at Havas, the new boss is making the right noises. He talks at length about putting creativity alongside sound management at the heart of its activity - Jacques Seguela, the Havas chief creative officer, is a "genius", he says.

And although installing the former banker Philippe Wahl as Havas' chief executive may not have been the wisest move, Bollore didn't shy away from removing him from his post once he realised Wahl's role as a "go-between", linking him with the heads of the operating companies, was more of an impediment than an advantage.

It is those heads - David Jones, the Briton who runs Euro RSCG; Mercedes Erra and Stephane Fouks, who control Euro RSCG France; and Fernando Rodes, Wahl's successor as chief executive - who are the key players in the collegiate management system Bollore says he is keen to encourage at the holding company.

An imminent test of that system may be whether or not such a collegiate backs Bollore's view that the Euro RSCG network should be rebranded as Havas. Jones opposes the idea and Bollore insists he will not be pushing it. "We're not moving on this for the moment, but we're certainly not ruling it out," he says.

Also, it is interesting, given his previous form, that he talks not about delivering a swift financial fix at Havas (last year's revenues dropped by 2 per cent from £1.07 billion to £1.05 billion, well below analysts' expectations) but of giving it a solid financial underpinning.

There will be no massaging of the figures, he promises, with a full recovery probably three or four years away and the prospect of bad figures for the next couple of years. And the fact he owns such a big shareholding in the business means that the group is not under the shareholder pressure imposed on the likes of WPP, he adds.

"We don't have to keep explaining to the financial markets why we're not delivering 15 per cent margins," he says. "We're going to do this step by step. I'm confident that the new Havas is recovering fast, although we have the time to improve and invest."

But invest where? Bollore declares himself pretty satisfied with the extent of Havas' global reach (only 20 per cent of its business comes from France), but knows the weakness of its media buying offering has to be addressed. Bollore's decision to put Rodes in day-to-day charge (despite the fact he divides his time between France, the UK and his native Spain) may be linked to the fact that he is also the chief executive of the Havas-owned Media Planning Group.

The big question is whether or not that weakness will be remedied via a tie-up with Aegis, the parent company of Carat, Vizeum and the market research specialist Synovate. The Bollore Group owns 26 per cent of Aegis.

If its stake rises to more than 30 per cent, it must make a full offer.

Bollore seems intent on keeping his options open. Aegis is a strategic investment, he says. His shareholding ensures its independence while talks, which began before his arrival at Havas, continue over how closely the two groups can work together. "Our priority is Aegis," Bollore says. "But it could be somebody else."

The past few months have also seen WPP and Publicis Groupe dancing around Aegis. Bollore's stake prevents WPP moving in to delist it and break it up. This has led to speculation that a deal will be cut with Sorrell under which Bollore gets Carat or Vizeum while WPP acquires Synovate. "We're very interested in it," a WPP source confirms.

"Anything is possible," Bollore shrugs. "I would like to do something with Sorrell that's in our mutual interest." The two often talk, Bollore adds with a wry smile, "because I like to understand what our more clever competition is doing".

Bollore's plan is to take advantage of the lack of shareholder pressure on Havas to continue the group's diversification and investment in new media. In short, he wants to make it "sexy". Although "attractive" may be a more apt description.

"We can be a great help to our clients because we don't have to earn large amounts of money to expand our margins," he says.

"Not only can we be the best, but also the cheapest. We can't challenge the likes of Omnicom and WPP just yet, but I believe it will happen."

He believes the "Chinese walls" established by rival groups to handle conflicting business are phoney, and claims most big clients think so too. His aim is to keep the group in what he calls a "virgin" state, and not give new- business prospects the opportunity to cherry-pick across a number of operating companies.

"We're a faithful group," he insists. "We work for Danone, so there's no way any of our companies are going near Nestle. That's also why we can move more quickly to bring creative and media closer together."

These are not the words of a financial carpetbagger. Should doubts persist, Bollore likes to point out that he has set the date for when he intends to bow out of Havas. It is 17 February 2022, his group's 200th birthday.

As always with Bollore, the historical significance is as important as the timing.

BOLLORE ON ...

Himself - "Why should anybody be scared of me? I'm actually a very charming guy"

Stalking Havas - "Our silence was deliberate. We thought the Havas management was very poor, and the figures proved it. But I didn't want to shoot myself in the foot by saying what I thought, because it would not have been very positive for the company, and very rude to the people within it"

Alain de Pouzilhac - "I've nothing against him personally. But I feel he behaved stupidly and that there was a need for change"

Renaming Euro RSCG as Havas - "We're not moving on this for the moment, but we're certainly not ruling it out"

An Aegis deal with Sorrell - "Anything is possible. I would like to do something with Sorrell that's in our mutual interest"

His business methods - "We don't always say what we are going to do. But we always do what we say we will. We've been very faithful to our friends and very tough on our competitors"

HAVAS AND THE BRETON BUCCANEER PANEL HEADING

2004

August: Vincent Bollore tests the water, taking a 5.1 per cent stake in Havas.

September: Raises stake to 10.4 per cent. Asks for seats on company's board. Alain de Pouzilhac describes request as "legitimate". Takeover speculation is heightened as Bollore raises stake to almost 14 per cent.

October: Tension mounts between de Pouzilhac and Bollore as Bollore's shareholding reaches 20.2 per cent.

November: De Pouzilhac calls on Bollore to say whether he is looking for a quick profit or building a long-term media strategy.

December: Bollore raises £270 million and promises to invest it in the media sector.

2005

February: De Pouzilhac claims a block of shareholders is backing him against Bollore.

March: Havas announces 2004 net profit of £24.4 million. De Pouzilhac claims sufficient shareholder support to see off Bollore.

April: Havas fails to offer Bollore boardroom representation.

May: Havas challenges Bollore again to declare whether he is a strategic or financial investor.

June: Bollore declares himself a long-term Havas shareholder but denies trying to take control. Weeks later, shareholders vote to install Bollore and three allies on the 18-seat board. Several proposals by de Pouzilhac and his fellow directors are blocked. Bollore declares: "I am not a wolf any more than I'm Darth Vader." De Pouzilhac accuses Bollore of mounting personal attacks on him and consorting with competitors. De Pouzilhac issues internal memo saying: "We have been betrayed by someone who was supposed to help us." He pledges to remain chairman and chief executive, but quits shortly afterwards.

Jean-Marie Dru, the chief executive of TBWA\Worldwide, turns down offer to replace de Pouzilhac.

July: Bollore becomes chairman. Pledges to end "instability" and keep Havas independent. Management team revamped.

August: Bollore acquires 6 per cent of Aegis, fuelling speculation he will merge it with Havas.

September: Havas denies plans for Aegis merger. Bollore increases stake to 12.6 per cent. Says he does not want a seat on the Aegis board, claiming it would be a "conflict of interest".

November: Raises Aegis stake to 21.05 per cent, continuing to buy stock on an almost daily basis.

2006

March: Fernando Rodes, the chief executive of Media Planning Group, named Havas chief executive.

April: Bollore raises Aegis stake from 25.5 per cent to 26 per cent.

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).