Vivendi Universal's embattled chairman, Jean-Marie Messier, has finally
called it quits, agreeing to resign late Sunday, according to press reports.
French newspaper Le Monde said Messier agreed to step down at a board
of directors meeting Sunday, ending his rocky six-year tenure.
Vivendi stock surged on the news, and closed at $22.48.
A former investment banker, Messier tried to transform the staid French water
utility into a media conglomerate, buying Seagram Co. Ltd.'s Universal film and
music assets from the Bronfman family in 2000 for $34 billion.
But Messier's vision of creating a media giant began to unravel as Vivendi's
stock price plunged -- it is down 62 percent this year -- and investors grew
wary of its $19 billion debt.
The pressure on Messier increased during the past few weeks, as the Bronfmans
have pushed for his ouster.
But Messier had managed to hold on to the support of Vivendi's French board
members, narrowly escaping a move by North America directors the Bronfmans and
Marie-Josee Kravis to force his resignation last Monday. While Vivendi's French
board members voted to keep Messier on then, they later changed their minds.
Messier tried to appease investors last week, pledging to reduce its debt to
$15 billion by the end of the year and also setting up twice-monthly conference
calls to answer investor questions.
In the first of those conference calls, Messier had downplayed reports of
board dissension, claiming that he planned to be Vivendi chairman for the next
According to Le Monde, Vivendi's board was expected to meet Monday
afternoon to appoint Jean-Rene Fourtou, vice chairman of the supervisory board
of Aventis, to a six-month interim chairmanship.
Vivendi spokeswoman Anita Larsen declined comment.
Fourtou is a respected French businessman, and he is widely expected to
propose a sale or spinoff of Vivendi's entertainment assets, according to Le
Those entertainment assets include Universal Music Group, its
music-publishing arm, and Vivendi Universal Entertainment, the movie and
television unit that includes USA Networks Inc.'s USA Network, Sci Fi Channel
and Newsworld International cable networks.
That could bode well for VUE chairman Barry Diller, who
agreed to sell his stakes in USA Networks to Vivendi in December in a deal
valued at about $10.3 billion. Should the VUE unit come up for sale, Diller is a
likely candidate to acquire it.