There is something charmingly idiosyncratic about the French,
especially in a world where the blurring of national boundaries is the
norm. So it is appropriate that Matra-Hachette, the country’s largest
media company, does things a little differently.
Firstly, Matra-Hachette is not really one company at all, but two. Matra
was, and is, one of the world’s leading defence electronics companies,
involved in hi-tech electronics from space to the Renault Espace.
Hachette, on the other hand, was France’s answer to W. H. Smith, a
company that developed from its humble bookselling beginnings to emerge
as the country’s leading book publisher. In 1945 the company launched
Elle magazine, and by the 70s it was the nearest thing French publishing
had to a grande dame.
But things change, and necessity can provide some pretty unlikely
The problem was that the 70s preached diversification and Hachette,
Enter Jean-Luc Lagadere, who had helped build up the Matra business.
Hachette had quickly floundered precisely because of its poorly judged
diversification policy and Lagadere was able to take over the publisher
in 1980. At first, the two companies were kept separate and Lagadere
made use of Hachette to turn himself from a national figure into an
international media mogul. He realised the importance of Elle as a brand
and launched a series of successful international versions of the title,
including one for the hugely important US market with Rupert Murdoch in
It was the 80s now and diversification had given way to expansion as the
business mantra - and there were few better sectors to be in than media.
Elle prospered abroad and Lagadere embarked on a furious expansion
drive, buying stakes in France’s second largest radio station, Europe 1,
and launching another soft rock FM station, Europe 2. Also, the company
bought a US magazine distributor and picked up the Spanish encyclopaedia
publisher, Salvat. The acquisition frenzy culminated in Lagadere buying
out Murdoch’s share of Elle in the UK, and in a dollars 1.1 billion deal
for the Grolier Encyclopaedia empire.
It was all going a bit too smoothly. And for Hachette, as for so many
other companies, when the 80s came to an end they did so with a
crashing, searing violence. Lagadere had seen the progress made in
television by many of the other media groups, not least the strides
achieved by Canal Plus in France. And the ambitious media king had long
hankered after completing his own media operations with the right kind
of broadcasting operation. Unfortunately, La Cinq was far from that.
Hachette took just a quarter share in the already loss-making TV network
but, by the time it had to pull the plug a year later, these losses had
escalated. In the end, the venture cost the company a dollars 643
million write-off and prompted a rescue plan that involved merging Matra
Lagadere retained voting control of the merged company but was left with
only a minority equity stake. So, once Matra-Hachette was in better
financial shape, he set about acquiring more shares and formally
absorbing his stake into his own listed company, the Lagadere Group. By
1994, Lagadere’s personal stake in the company had grown from 37.6 per
cent to 93.4 per cent and his voting rights from 51.2 per cent to 94 per
The company was split into three sections - a hi-tech arm comprising
most of the former Matra interests, an automobile arm comprising the
former Matra companies that had been involved in the development of the
Renault Espace, plus the media arm. The media interests were, in turn,
concentrated into Hachette Filipacchi Presse, which publishes newspapers
and magazines across the globe, and Europe 1 Communications, which
manages the group’s radio and outdoor interests.
The restructuring has freed the company and enabled it to get on with a
more focused management of its interests, and the magazine arm has made
significant inroads into both the North American and Asian Pacific
In the US, the company’s most significant acquisition has been of the
cinema magazine, Premiere, and the auto title, Car and Driver.
Lagadere is aiming to develop both magazines as worldwide brands
following the Elle blueprint.
Confirmation of Hachette’s success in getting to grips with the tough US
marketplace came with the launch 18 months ago of George, a glossy
lifestyle magazine for people interested in politics. Although the
magazine has only limited circulation ambitions, the fact that it is run
by John F. Kennedy Jr, the son of the late president, has excited most
of the big publishing groups.
However, much of the group’s growth is likely to come from Asia as
Lagadere intends to launch up to four titles a year in the area.
Hachette has stolen a march on many of its rivals by fostering close
links with China. There has been a Chinese edition of Elle since 1988
and Hachette is one of only a few international publishers entitled to
print and distribute in the country that most observers believe will
become the single most important new market over the next few years.
And if they don’t want magazines, Hachette can always sell them
Who said there was no synergy between Matra and Hachette?
MATRA-HACHETTE AT A GLANCE
MEDIA AND MULTIMEDIA
Magazines and newspapers
The company owns the controlling 66 per cent stake in Hachette
Filipacchi Presse, the engine of the company’s media operations. It
publishes over 100 titles in 25 countries. Around half the division’s
revenues still come from France, although that figure as a percentage
has been declining.
It owns seven newspapers, including the Dernieres Nouvelles d’Alsace and
Le Provencal and publishes around 25 magazines. The highest circulation
titles are the listings guides, Tele 7 Jours and TV Hebdo. Other titles
range from Le Journal de Mickey to the financial periodical, Le Nouvel
Economiste. The division publishes Elle, Elle Decor and Elle Top Model
The company publishes 27 titles in the US including Mirabella, Premiere,
Video and Car and Driver. It has also diversified into TV and Hachette
Filipacchi Productions was launched in 1994 to develop programmes based
on the group’s magazine titles and to run the Automotive Channel on
In China the division publishes the sports title, Bo, a version of
Woman’s Day and Car and Auto China in addition to the Elle
The company owns a 45 per cent stake in Europe 1 Communications. It
controls the Europe 1 and 2 French national radio stations as well as a
portfolio of stations across Spain, Germany, Eastern Europe, Russia and
China. Europe Images is one of the major programme suppliers to French
Grolier Encyclopaedia is now on CD-Rom and the company operates
Hachette Livre owns several French book publishers.
Hachette Distribution Services runs magazine distribution companies.
Matra operates companies concerned with the space, defence,
telecommunications and transport fields. Matra sales represent around 40
per cent of total group revenues.