George Pitcher: Two media men, unalike in wealth and in power

The ailing fortunes of Vivendi bring to light a tragic tale of two men – one self-made, the other born rich – both of whom wanted to play with the stars. By George Pitcher

I was always a seller of Seagram’s shares – not that I ever owned any, but you know what I mean. During the Nineties, I wrote more than once that the drinks combine’s excursion into movies and entertainment would end in tears.

Columnists claiming that they were right all along can be tiresome, so let me say right away that, at the turn of the millennium, I was keeping my mouth firmly shut. Seagram was selling its media interests in the summer of 2000 in exchange for some £5.5bn of Vivendi International shares.

Despite the bursting bubble in the media and telecoms sectors, the diversified conglomeration of Vivendi International looked robust. The hubris of dot-com enterprises took some beating, but global consolidations of entertainment content and the means of delivery – underpinned by the steady earnings of utilities to boot – looked the way of the future.

Many of us swallowed the “convergence” idea. In some way, we believed the creativity of Universal Studios – part of the Seagram deal – would be routed to the market of 18 million mobile-phone users through Vivendi’s SFR telecoms arm.

Such convergence now looks rather silly and we should be mildly embarrassed that we bought it. My earlier instincts were better – that Seagram’s Bronfman family had built an awesome market presence in the spirits industry and should stay out of industries that they did not know.

The value of the Bronfman family’s five per cent interest in Vivendi plummeted from £5.5bn sales revenue in 2000 to less than £1bn today. Meanwhile, Vivendi looks certain to be the subject of a break-up of a portfolio as diverse as water utilities and television companies in order to return some value to shareholders.

At its heart, this story is a tragedy – in the Greek sense – for two men, in several irresponsible acts. And it’s worth examining the similarities and differences between them.

Jean-Marie Messier, Vivendi’s chief executive, probably dreamed of being a global media mogul in the Murdoch mould, before being ousted unceremoniously last week after the share price headed in the opposite direction to the group’s ever-rising debt.

Edgar Bronfman Jr, born with a silver cocktail spoon in his mouth, masterminded the squandering of the fortune his father and grandfather built. Bronfman is widely debited with being a star-struck rich kid, whose business acumen (such as it was) was subsumed in a desire to be in glamourous 21st century industries at all costs, even ruinous ones.

It is said that Bronfman and Messier are similar creatures in their vanities. There may be some truth in that. Both wanted out of boring libations – whisky and gin in the case of Bronfman; water in the case of Messier. Both are suckers for the media set.

But I believe that there are significant differences too. Say what you like about Messier – and the French currently are – he is a self-made man who came from nowhere (as a special adviser to the French finance ministry and a banker at Lazard).

Bronfman, by contrast, is a sort of Canadian version of Prince Edward – from a hugely privileged background of wealth and influence, but longing to get down and groove with the new media aristocracy. Someone should have told him that there’s more to it than growing a beard.

The analogy is, actually, a very sound one. Along with the property tycoon Reichmanns, the Bronfmans form a version of a Canadian royal family. And like the British version it was brilliant once, when everyone knew what it stood for, but now nobody can quite work out what it’s meant to do.

Messier is different. He was meant to build a hugely valuable conglomerate, which he did, and has become disposable now that its value has collapsed. Better, perhaps, for economies, as well as families, to create wealth and destroy it than to inherit it and then lose it.

So much for the similarities and differences between the architects of Vivendi. But there are more vital comparisons in what they leave behind as the result of the failure of Vivendi.

In the case of the Bronfmans, they are down to the last few hundred millions of their fortune. They’ll survive.

In our teens, my sister was a friend of part of the family. In truth, we never realised how rich they were and I don’t think they did either – this is not one of those dynasties that exists solely for its power and influence and I’m not sure that fluctuations in its net worth affect it much.

Messier’s corporate demise has separate ramifications. I suspect there isn’t a Messier dynasty, in the sense of the Bronfman one. But, oddly enough, I suspect Messier’s fall will have the greater national effect.

Messier was a vociferous critic of French isolationism and protectionism. He attacked the system of government subsidies that sought to protect the French film industry from Hollywood. He was an assiduous disciple of all practices American.

We can expect his successor at Vivendi, Jean-René Fourtou, to be altogether more traditionally Gallic in his approach to commerce. While my position is far from suggesting that the US is a model for world trade, I don’t believe that France’s long-term interests are best served by more inward-looking industrialists.

The tragedy of Vivendi will have profounder effects on France than it could ever have on the Bronfmans and Canada.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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