Close-Up: Live Issue - Will Havas be the purchase to tame the 'Breton buccaneer'?

Vincent Bollore's image is that of a raider not media mogul, Mark Tungate says.

French stockbrokers call him the "Breton buccaneer" but until a couple of weeks ago, few people in the media community had heard of Vincent Bollore. Even in France, where he is a fairly well-known industrialist, he is often referred to as "enigmatic". A request to interview him was met with a curt: "Monsieur Bollore is not talking to the press. He has no comments about Havas."

Havas, of course, is the reason that Bollore has moved into the spotlight.

In the midst of the French group's attempts to buy Grey, Bollore increased his stake in Havas from 5 per cent to more than 10 per cent - making him the company's largest shareholder - and made public his opposition to the Grey purchase. It seems he questioned the wisdom of the bid at a time when Havas is in poor financial shape. He is pushing for a presence on the board (at least two seats) and a management restructure which would give him a bigger say in the company's future.

Last week, Bollore made headlines on both sides of the Channel when he increased his share to 13.6 per cent. At the same time, it was reported that he was talking to the WPP group chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell, about a possible joint takeover of Havas. Sorrell confirmed that they had "been in touch". The news pushed Havas' share price up 2.13 per cent, to 4.32 euros, and changed its rating from "negative" to "positive".

The Havas chairman, Alain de Pouzilhac, played down the takeover rumours, but told French reporters that Bollore's involvement was "a great opportunity".

Analysts agree that a management shake-up and the presence of a dynamic businessman like Bollore would do the company's image good. Havas is undergoing a restructure, having sold a number of units, and intends to raise 402 million euros through a two-for-one rights issue. It lost nearly 400 million euros last year - although in the first half of this year it announced a return to profit, posting a net income of 14 million euros.

But is Bollore serious about wanting to own Havas? He's known for being a wheeler-dealer rather than an aspiring media mogul. His usual style is to swoop on companies when they are suffering, force them to shake up their operations, and then resell his shares at a profit. His conglomerate, Groupe Bollore, is concentrated around transport and paper. It has revenue of 5.4 billion euros and net profits of 83 million euros. A spokeswoman for Bollore says: "There is a lot of talk about his involvement in media, but in reality it's a tiny part of his business."

Even so, Bollore has a 10 per cent stake in the French entertainment and film production company Gaumont, which owns a catalogue of classic French movies second only to that of Canal+. Next spring, it will launch a digital television channel called Direct 8. In 2001, the Bollore group joined forces with Euromedia, a broadcast production company, when the French film production group Societe Francaise de Production was being privatised. Bollore now owns a 30 per cent stake in SFP, as well as 24 per cent of Euromedia itself. He has acquired the MacMahon art- house cinema in Paris, and took over Streampower, the leading French company offering streaming video over the internet. The group also owns an AM radio station called Radio New Talents.

Jacques Falzon, an analyst at KBC Securities, comments: "It is true that (Bollore) has not invested a great deal in media until now. But he has said that he is looking for a third major activity after transport and paper."

So what do we know about the man himself? Bollore, 52, was born in Brittany and still has strong ties to the region, where the family paper business was established 180 years ago. "I adore Brittany, I feel good there," he said in a rare interview accorded to the regional magazine Nouvel Ouest.

In the same article, he describes himself as a practising Catholic. "I am not at all liberal, but a Christian and a democrat," he says. He is also pro-European.

A more recent article, in Le Figaro, suggests that Bollore is a natural collector: comic books and mineral water labels when he was a child, then different types of sand (he has 42 colours, in bottles, according to the newspaper), and, of course, companies.

Legend has it that Bollore started out by buying back the bankrupt family business, then in the hands of the Rothschild Group, for one French franc.

Now the company provides 75 per cent of the thin "bible" paper used in American textbooks.

After turning the paper business around, Bollore moved into tobacco (which he has since abandoned), rubber, palm oil, cocoa, coffee and cotton. In 1997, he made his first move into media, buying a stake in Bouygues, the construction giant that controlled France's leading commercial TV channel, TF1. He sold his stake a year later for a 200 million euro profit - but not before having fallen out with his friend Martin Bouygues, whom he had failed to convince to pull out of the mobile telephone business.

In November 1998, he acquired a 20 per cent stake in Pathe, the French film company. Again, he pulled out after a few months, selling his stake to Vivendi for a profit of around 140 million euros. These swift strikes have earned him a reputation as a corporate raider, a term he dislikes.

"Bollore has always said his investments are just a way of putting spare cash to work," one analyst says. "His real focus is the family firm."

He also has a quixotic but potentially lucrative pet project, which is to develop and commercialise the first long-life, lightweight electric car battery. A prototype went on show at the Salon d'Automobile in Paris last week. Acquaintances say he is more enthusiastic about this than any of his other businesses.

It may be that his moves on Havas are just another in-and-out raid, but claims that he has a limited interest in media seem ingenuous. As one analyst put it: "Powerful men have always been irresistibly drawn to the media business."