Orange CEO says needs invite from Bollore to look at Telecom Italia

CAIRO (Reuters) - Orange Chief Executive Officer Stephane Richard has said he might look into the possibility of a merger deal with Telecom Italia if French billionaire Vincent Bollore invited him to, but does not think that would happen.

French telecom operator Orange Chief Executive Officer Stephane Richard speaks during the company's 2015 annual results presentation in Paris, France, February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Bollore is chairman and the biggest shareholder of French media group Vivendi, which since last year has built up a 23.8 percent stake in Telecom Italia.

“If one day Mr. Bollore tells me, ‘the best thing would be to make a deal between us and make Orange buy Telecom Italia’, then we’ll see,” Richard said on the sidelines of an event in Cairo late on Monday.

“I don’t think it’s in his intentions,” he added, saying that he met Bollore regularly.

Vivendi and Telecom Italia declined to comment.

Asked about the possibility of a Franco-Italian tie-up in the telecoms sector, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Tuesday that Italy was happy to welcome foreign investors.

“Naturally we will leave it to the market to decide,” Renzi said following bilateral talks in Venice with French President Francois Hollande. “Whoever has money, whoever has projects, whoever creates employment, whoever has intriguing ideas should know that Italy is the right place to show off their skills.”

In December Vivendi won four seats on Telecom Italia’s 17-member board, with its new board representatives including Chief Executive Arnaud de Puyfontaine.

“(Bollore) almost controls the board of directors,” Richard said, referring to Telecom Italia. “He has the keys to the future of the company.”

However, De Puyfontaine said in January that Vivendi’s investment in Telecom Italia was not a point of entry for Orange, rejecting media reports suggesting that Bollore could broker a deal between the two telecoms companies.

A year ago Richard was quoted as saying that Telecom Italia was “an attractive European consolidation opportunity” but said last month his company had no plans to merge with the Italian group.

Telecom Italia, which has net debt of around 27 billion euros ($30 billion), is widely seen as a potential takeover target in a consolidating industry, partly because of its relatively small size.

Its main markets are now only at home and in Brazil, and it offers untapped potential in Italy, where it faces no competition from any nationwide cable operators.

Any tie-up between Orange and Telecom Italia would require French state backing as it owns 23 percent of the phone group

Meanwhile Orange has been in talks since early January to buy smaller French market rival Bouygues Telecom in an outline 10 billion-euro ($11 billion) cash-and-shares deal that would make Bouygues the biggest shareholder in Orange after the French government.

Richard’s comments follow market speculation that Vivendi has been growing increasingly impatient for change at Telecom Italia and might force a reshaping of the group with or without the current Chief Executive Marco Patuano.

Telecom Italia’s shares were up 1.1 percent by 1456 GMT, when Orange shares were down 1.4 percent at 15.55 euros and the Stoxx Europe 600 telecoms sector index <0#.SXKP> was down 0.7 percent.

Additional reporting by Agnieszka Flak in Milan, Gwenaelle Barzic in Paris and Crispian Balmer in Rome; Editing by Greg Mahlich