The Frenchman's purchase of a 6% stake in Aegis-the seventh-largest holding company, just behind Bollore's Havas-is considered by executives who know him to be a push toward the possible merger of the two, or of their media arms, MPG and Carat.
Mr. Bollore hasn't said that's his ultimate goal (through a spokesman, he emphasized last week that the Aegis shares were purchased on behalf of Bollore Group, not by Havas). But industry watchers and investors aren't willing to bet against it.
David Herro, chief investment officer of international equities at Harris Associates, which owns 10% of Aegis and is renowned for dethroning Maurice Saatchi years ago, said last week he is concerned that Mr. Bollore might strike a deal with Aegis management or somehow gain control without paying a premium.
Mr. Bollore appears to be freeing up capital for investment: Last week he sold 3% of his stake in Vallourec, a steel-pipe maker, which raised about $124 million, and he is in negotiations to sell his shipping businesses by early fall, which could raise an estimated $600 million.
If he can get a controlling interest in Aegis, he could then look to merge the two holding companies. Just last week he expanded on his pledge that he is a long-term investor in Havas, by saying he wanted to "clean up and put in order" Havas for two years, and would then consider a larger partnership.
A marriage of perennial also-ran Havas' MPG media operations with Aegis' Carat would be a huge coup, enabling it in one fell swoop to jump ahead of Omnicom and Interpublic, with a 17.5% share, according to research firm RECMA. The combined entity would dominate in France, Spain and Portugal; be bolstered in North America; and get a jumpstart in Asia thanks to Carat's small-but-fast-growing operations there.
"It could make a huge difference," said Chris Ingram, CEO of media concern Ingram Partnership.
It could also turn Mr. Bollore into a hero in France. He would not only be the man who boosted the fortunes of the nation's storied ad-agency network, but would also, effectively, be returning Carat-now part of the U.K.'s Aegis Group-to its roots as a French-owned company. That's a play that would appeal to most business egos, suggested one executive.
Or maybe he plans to force someone else's hand: "It is quite possible that he is just trying to raise prices in order to make a big profit by selling stakes in Havas or Aegis to one of the market leaders," said one analyst. Reasoned another: "If the idea had been to launch a takeover bid, the logics would be to have Havas and not the Bollore Group buy the stake."
A third suggests Mr. Bollore will invest up to 20% to 25% (in the U.K., investors owning 30% or more must make a bid) and then pressure management to sign a joint venture with MPG. Takeovers "are not his habit."
Still others speculate that Mr. Bollore's aim is not to take over Aegis, but simply to put it in play. Omnicom in 1993 bought 9% of Aegis, and raised its share to 13% before selling it in 1996. In the last eight years, Omnicom's been rumored to have a renewed interest, but never taken action. That could change. "A lot of holding companies have ignored media, and tended to invest on the creative side. Now there's only one girl left at the dance, they might look at her differently," said Dominic Proctor, CEO, WPP's MindShare.
contributing: isabelle musnik