PARIS/LONDON (Reuters) - If Vivendi (VIV.PA) was to draw up a personal ad to find its perfect partner it would read:
“Freshly divorced from telecoms, 160-year-old holding company seeks attractive media businesses to spark growth. Pitches welcome, contact major shareholder Vincent Bollore.”
After selling three of its six businesses in the past year in a strategy overhaul, Vivendi, one of France’s largest companies, has up to 10 billion euros ($13.6 billion) to remake itself depending on how much debt it is willing to take on.
People close to the company say Vivendi is likely to target acquisitions in different areas to its French pay-television operator Canal Plus and Universal Music Group, which are already too big in their respective markets to expand further.
Bankers are honing pitches to buy U.S.-based TV companies like AMC (AMC.N), Starz STRZA.O, and Scripps Network Interactive SNI.N, or a movie studio such as Lionsgate LGF.N, said two of the people. If U.S. valuations are too high, Vivendi could scoop up TV and movie producers in Europe or look to new areas such as live sports or concerts, said one of the people.
Vivendi will also have to do something with its Brazilian broadband unit GVT, which does not fit with the new focus on media, the people said. This business, valued from 4.9 to 5.4 billion euros, could be sold or merged with local mobile player Telecom Italia’s TIM (TIMP3.SA). Vivendi says GVT is not for sale.
Vivendi has so far said nothing about its plans, despite being six months into an internal review led by future chief executive Arnaud de Puyfontaine, who joined from magazine group Hearst in January.
That is because Vincent Bollore, Vivendi’s second-largest shareholder with a 5 percent stake, will become the real boss once he takes over as board chairman at a June 24 shareholder meeting.
The 62 year-old tycoon, who built a family owned port and logistics business in Africa and raided blue-chip companies like ad agency Havas EURC.PA, has a reputation for playing his cards close to his chest. He has not even told Vivendi executives what he wants the company to do after pending asset sales are completed, said the two people.
As a result, Vivendi is not expected to move on deals until late this year or next, they said.
“We don’t need ideas; we have lots of them,” said one company insider.
“But no one really knows if Bollore wants to recenter the group around Canal Plus, sell off music, or do something else ... honestly the guy is a total mystery.”
A Vivendi spokesman said the company was in no rush to do deals and would take time to consider its options.
Since declaring a “no taboo” era in spring 2012 aimed at reversing a share slump, Vivendi has sold its video games arm Activision Blizzard (ATVI.O), Maroc Telecom (IAM.CS) and French telecom operator SFR.
Investors, who will get close to 5 billion euros in dividends and share buybacks by the end of next year, have been rewarded for their patience. Shares that were trading at 12 euros when the overhaul started have settled at 19 euros after hitting 21 euros in February, the highest level in three years.
Vivendi’s three remaining businesses - Universal Music, GVT and Canal Plus - face relatively modest growth prospects and generate little cost savings by being kept together. JP Morgan sees sales at Universal and Canal Plus growing 1.7 percent on a compound annual basis from 2014 to 2016. GVT will grow a bigger 10 percent on a compound annual basis from 2014 to 2016, but does not yet generate cash.
“Vivendi must decide if it wants to forge a coherent media company with a real strategy or if it is content to be a holding company with a collection of assets,” said Gunjan Dixit, an analyst at ratings agency Moody‘s.
Bernstein Research analyst Claudio Aspesi said the prudent course would be for Vivendi to buy companies to strengthen Universal and Canal Plus. “While the temptation will be to acquire flashier digital media businesses, the risk is real that Vivendi overpays for targets that bring few synergies,” he said.
Although Universal’s market share is too big in recorded music to grow further by acquisitions, it could branch out into complementary areas like merchandising or doing more with a Vivendi-owned ticketing business called Digitick. Expanding into concert promotion or live events would be a good way to bolster Universal, said a sector banker.
Canal Plus, France’s biggest pay-TV operator, could add additional countries beyond the current ones of Poland, Vietnam and some of French-speaking Africa.
Canal Plus has seen subscribers defect to Al Jazeera-owned sports channel beIN Sports, and also faces new competition from Internet-based players like Netflix (NFLX.O), which will launch in France this autumn. Further pressure could come if Rupert Murdoch finalises talks to combine his European TV interests in a single company led by Britain’s BSkyB BSY.L.
However there are a limited number of pay-TV targets for Vivendi- Mediaset Premium in Italy and Digiturk in Turkey are two - and little evidence that being in pay-TV in different countries generates cost savings since content rights are local.
“There is more value in acquiring a Middle Eastern satellite player like OSN, which is also present in North Africa, than a US-based pay TV specialist,” another banker said.
“A takeover of OSN would bridge the gap with viewers in North Africa and offers higher-growth opportunities.”
Bollore could well be tempted to look further afield in digital media.
One person who met Vivendi recently came away with the impression that the entrepreneur favoured a bold approach. “Vivendi will favour a multibillion acquisition that could transform its media business and give it access to the digital universe,” said the person.
“Bollore’s strategy is to look at a single transformational deal rather than a string of mid-market ones.”
Additional reporting by Gwenaelle Barzic, Sophie Sassard, and Nicola Leske; Editing by Erica Billingham