On the other end of the line was Alain de Pouzilhac, chairman-CEO of Havas, one of France's two global, publicly traded advertising firms. Mr. Bollore was calling to tell Mr. de Pouzilhac of his intention to buy shares in the parent of Euro RSCG Worldwide, Arnold Worldwide and MPG.
In the ensuing months, Mr. Bollore made good on his word ... and then some. From an initial purchase of 5%, the stake has grown to just over 20%, now held in one entity, Bollore Medias Investissements. That makes him not only the single largest shareholder in the fifth-largest holding company, but a central figure in the ongoing debate over whether Havas should be broken up or sold.
Today Vincent Bollore's is an oft-heard name in the corridors of media and creative agencies. His standing as Havas' largest single shareholder, combined with his well-documented history of buying into under-valued companies, pushing for managerial change and then selling at a profit has many in the ad business watching his every move. Mr. de Pouzilhac, in particular, would welcome more details concerning his plans. Will he continue to buy shares? French law requires a shareholder who acquires more than 33% of a listed company to launch a full takeover bid. If he hangs onto his current holding, what might that mean to Havas' agencies? And if he sells, who would buy, and would the company be broken up?
The Frenchman thus far has proven elusive. His public remarks about Havas have been limited to those sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the Conseil des Marches Financiers, France's market regulator. Since that July phone call, he's spoken only to a handful of media outlets, and then only through a spokesman. He denied multiple requests for an interview with Ad Age.
Born into a once-well-to-do family whose business, Bollore Papeteries-a maker of fine paper used in the manufacture of cigarettes and bibles-fell on hard times, Mr. Bollore is both revered and feared in French boardrooms. Patrick Frey, president of Paris fabric maker Pierre Frey, praised him in Le Figaro as a "brilliant and astonishing manager." Maurice Levy, chairman-CEO, Publicis Groupe, who has known Mr. Bollore for more than two decades, describes him as "sharp, clever, pragmatic. He's led by the interest of the group."
Indeed, past actions indicate he is unconcerned about alienating former acquaintances or industry heavyweights. In the late 1990s, he amassed nearly 13% of Bouygues, France's construction, TV and telecom group, a company led by Martin Bouygues, a former elementary school classmate of Mr. Bollore's in Paris. Mr. Bollore, the second largest shareholder next to Mr. Bouygues, got three seats on the company board, took one for himself and put allies in the other two. He then proceeded to speak out against management. Mr. Bouygues characterized Bollore Group as hostile. Mr. Bollore eventually sold his stake and reportedly pocketed $250 million.
In the early 1990s, he took control of Societe Financiere d'Affartments et de Combustibles, one of France's largest shipping groups, bidding against the powerful Delmas Vieljeux Group and its chief executive, Tristan Vieljeux. Mr. Bollore fell out completely with Mr. Vieljeux after he bought a controlling interest in Mr. Vieljeux's company to form SCAC Delmas Vieljeux.
"I like pushing people to move a little. In France, we are poor at this," he told The New York Times in 2001.
An executive familiar with Havas said the holding company's concern is that Mr. Bollore's true interest is in destabilizing Havas. This person notes similarities in his recent behavior with Havas, such as using the media rather than directly communicating with the company and seeking to create rifts among directors, to his actions while he invested in Bouygues.
Blond, often tan, a man who "looks the part" of a maverick, according to one observer, Mr. Bollore, dislikes being called a raider; he once told a Financial Times reporter he prefers "brocanteur," defined as someone who buys antiques and cast-off objects at a low price, restores them and sells at a profit. He ranks No. 292 on Forbes' list of the world's billionaires, based on a worth estimated at $2.2 billion.
Bollore Group, a $6.2 billion revenue company traded on the Paris Bourse, has evolved from making fine paper into a conglomerate whose involvements include manufacturing as well as subsidiaries with interests in shipping, fuel distribution and media. Mr. Bollore calls Bollore's Vice Chairman Antoine Bernheim, (who is also chairman of Italy's largest insurance company, Assicurazioni Generale as well as vice chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton), his "principal and only real adviser," and has said, "Antoine created me, and supported me from the beginning. Without him, the group would not exist."
One of Mr. Bollore's strategies is to buy a minority of shares in a company but accrue the narrow majority of voting rights. He's been quoted saying he likes to "stick to niche products that do not attract a lot of big competitors," and to "be diversified in various niches I could be No. 1 in." A father of four, he is said to be grooming his sons to carry on the family business.
In 2001, he acquired an interest in France's Societe Francaise de Production, a state-owned media and TV company. One executive familiar with Mr. Bollore's thinking said that all or part of Havas could be of interest to him because in France, years ago, media and ad agencies were often connected to TV. "It's a very old idea," said this person.
Whether he intends to stay in the advertising is anybody's guess. An upcoming Havas shareholder meeting may yield some clues. He's requested four seats on Havas' board. The outcome of a shareholders' vote June 9 on a slate of candidates, some nominated by Havas, others by Bollore Group, will determine the amount of control he will get.
Contributing: James B. Arndorfer
Nickname: Petit Prince du Cashflow
Describes himself as: A "brocanteur," someone who buys antiques and cast-off objects at a low price, fixes them, and sells at a profit.
Now: Largest single shareholder in Havas.
What's at stake: Four seats on the Havas board, which will be put to a shareholder vote June 9. That will determine how much control he can exert over Havas' future.