* Numericable backer convinces Vivendi in takeover fight
* Vivendi picks Numericable for exclusive SFR talks
* Maths whiz turned cable king beats out Bouygues
* Government, rivals sought to block path
By Nicholas Vinocur and Leila Abboud
PARIS, March 14 When Franco-Israeli telecoms
billionaire Patrick Drahi entered the race to acquire Vivendi's
SFR, his powerful rivals seemed to suddenly agree on a
common goal: keeping him out.
Fellow tycoon Martin Bouygues, whose conglomerate has
telecoms to construction holdings in France, mounted a late bid
for SFR against Drahi's Numericable and rallied strong
connections in the government.
Xavier Niel, founder of low-cost operator Iliad who
would benefit if a rival bid from Bouygues succeeded,
slammed Drahi for skirting taxes with his company based in
Amsterdam and homes in Geneva and Tel Aviv.
On Friday as Vivendi's board prepared to weigh the bids,
France's Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg went on morning
radio to slam Drahi's bid as too leveraged and bad for France.
Through the three-week takeover battle, Drahi, who came to
France from Morocco as a teenager, was not deterred.
On Friday Vivendi picked Drahi's Numericable bid of 11.75
billion euros ($16.36 billion) in cash and additional shares
over that of Bouygues. The two sides will undertake three weeks
of exclusive talks to finalise the deal.
Working with a handful of lieutenants, who have helped him
build an empire of cable and television companies from the
Dominican Republic to Belgium, Drahi deliberately kept a low
profile. He met with regulators and ministers to explain his
plan for SFR, France's second-biggest telecom carrier and
employer of 9,000, and ignored the media hubbub.
"Patrick has been working on this project for years," said
Numericable executive Jerome Yomtov. "He was very calm."
A person who worked with him for years commended Drahi on
the SFR achievement: "This is somebody who is not from the
French establishment, who had to have an enormous amount of
determination to get where he is now."
FRENCH 'CABLE COWBOY'
Born in Casablanca, Morocco, Drahi moved to southern France
at age 15 with his parents who were mathematics teachers. He
soon distinguished himself as a science student, and was
selected for the elite military university which specialised in
maths and engineering, the Ecole Polytechnique.
There he rubbed shoulders with old French family scions and
donned a military uniform at Bastille Day parades. It was his
first exposure to the French establishment whose codes and
traditions he eventually learned to master.
His first job was at consumer electronics conglomerate
Philips in a lab working on fibre optics, but Drahi soon set out
to be an entrepreneur in the nascent cable sector.
With the backing of an American partner, he went town to
town in southern France lobbying mayors to convince them to let
him dig up their streets to install cable lines to deliver
television. He focused on areas left out of France's state cable
programme and soon built up a patchwork of networks.
Eventually Drahi sold his company to UPC, a U.S. cable giant
owned by his idol billionaire John C. Malone, the so-called
"Cable Cowboy" who built up a telecommunications empire in the
He shrewdly asked to be paid in shares of UPC and at age 34
went to Geneva to work for UPC. He settled there with his wife.
They have four children, scattered today in Lausanne, Tel Aviv,
and Bristol. Drahi gathers them in Geneva each Friday for family
Just before the dotcom bubble burst, Drahi sold his UPC
shares for about 40 million euros and left the company.
In 2001 he created Altice, an Amsterdam-based
holding company, and started buying up cable companies in
France, Belgium, and Luxembourg, slowly gaining critical mass.
Numericable was born at this time, and eventually grew to
become France's biggest cable company with a network covering
two-thirds of households.
Drahi brought in private equity funds Carlyle and
Cinven to help fund Numericable's development. The
company had its ups and downs - saddled with high debts it was
slower to upgrade its network to deliver high-speed broadband
than cable peers in Germany and Britain and around 2002 faced a
torrent of customer complaints for poor service and billing
Once Numericable was back on the rails, Drahi began to hunt
for acquisitions in cable outside France. His first buy was a
cable company in Israel called HOT. The country soon became a
second home for Drahi, who is well-known in business circles and
an active philanthropist there. In 2013 he branched into content
by founding I24, an international news channel broadcast in
English, French and Arabic.
The battle for SFR brought Drahi back to France. He first
approached Vivendi about SFR in 2012, but was rebuffed over
disagreements about price. He then pursued stock market listings
of Numericable and Altice with the aim of making another run at
At home in France he encountered obstacles he did not face
elsewhere. As the pressure mounted in the SFR fight, people
close to Drahi acknowledge that the criticism got to him and
left him feeling like an outsider.
Bernard Mourad, an investment banker at Morgan Stanley who
worked on the Numericable deal, said Drahi told his team to keep
their heads down.
"He told us to keep working," said Mourad. "He did not want
us to use the methods used by some of our competitors."
($1 = 0.7181 Euros)
(Additional reporting by Tova Cohen; Editing by Elaine