PARIS (Reuters) - Vivendi’s top investor Vincent Bollore stunned shareholders and board members on Thursday by anointing his son Yannick as chairman only days before the company faces a crucial showdown in Italy.
The 66-year-old billionaire, chairman since 2014, made the announcement at the end of the French media giant’s annual general meeting, capping a tumultuous period in which he launched an acquisition spree in France and Italy before becoming embroiled in a shareholder battle with U.S. activist fund Elliott over the leadership of Telecom Italia.
“It’s time to make room for a younger generation,” a smiling Bollore told shareholders gathered at Olympia, the renowned Parisian music hall.
Evoking the successful TV series Versailles, he said: “In one episode, the king, Louis XIV, looks through the window and tells his son: all of this will be yours ... but the son did not get anything because the king remained for 50 years.
“I’m not going to stay on for 50 years.”
The proposal quickly received the board’s unanimous approval.
Bollore, who remains on Vivendi’s board, has repeatedly said he would hand over the different activities of his conglomerate in 2022, 200 years after the foundation of the family-run group.
He has become a focus of media attention in France since gaining control of Vivendi, owner of the country’s biggest pay-TV group, Canal Plus.
Bollore was already a prominent figure on France’s corporate landscape, having hosted former French president Nicolas Sarkozy on his yacht and having once befriended Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Now his 38-year-old son, who already sits on the Vivendi board, will have to take up the mantle at a challenging time for the company. The new chairman will have to prove that his father’s plan to turn the group into a South-European media powerhouse remains viable.
Those grand ambitions have come under threat as Elliott has challenged Vivendi’s influence over Telecom Italia (TIM), where it owns 24 percent of the shares, and Italian politicians have expressed growing opposition to what they consider as Vivendi’s fast-and-loose business manners.
The activist fund, now TIM’s second-largest investor with a 9 percent stake, proposed to replace some the Vivendi-nominated board members through a shareholder vote on April 24 to improve governance and strategy at Italy’s biggest phone group.
Vivendi has also been unable to find common ground over the past year with Mediaset, the broadcaster controlled by Berlusconi, after the failure of an initial agreement between the groups turned into a legal battle.
The French company’s challenges in Italy contrast with improving results at Canal Plus, which has been building its subscriber base.
The group’s shares have also benefited from the rising value of its music division, Universal Music Group, thanks to rising demand for streaming services.
Reporting by Mathieu Rosemain; Editing by David Goodman