|Vincent Bollore spoke of his continuing interest in acquiring more communications companies.
"The communication sector is really interesting to me," Mr. Bollore told a group of senior Havas executives, journalists and others gathered at the agency's Paris headquarters for an invitation-only conference. "I am optimistic about advertising and publicity. The market is changing, and I believe in the future of communication."
In a rare appearance -- he is known best as a shadowy investor rather than a publicity-seeking CEO -- Mr. Bollore sprinkled his speech with jokes as well as criticism of actions taken by Havas' previous management. He addressed a range of topics, including the company's financial performance and its size; his interest in media and communications companies and his optimism about advertising; what he'd like to have happen between Havas' media agency MPG and the London-based media-buying entity Aegis Group, in which he owns a 25.1% stake; and his plan to remain involved with Havas for the long term.
'Not here by chance'
"I am not here by chance," he said, referring to his role within Havas. "I am not here as a passerby. ... I am here to stay for long." He disappointed some attendees who had hoped for specific details on a reorganization of the company that is scheduled to be announced this month.
Mr. Bollore, Havas' largest shareholder with 23.8% stake, became chairman in July after a boardroom showdown that resulted in the eventual ouster of former CEO-Chairman Alain de Pouzilhac.
Havas today is half the size it was five years ago, Mr. Bollore said. The former management's program of building by acquisition (a strategy Mr. Bollore called "calamitous") put the company at a disadvantage. "It is completely distanced from its competitors in terms of size and financial capacity.
Getting rid of bad news
"The past bad news is something I can get rid of," he continued. "We know what it is, we know where we can grow. One just needs to go back to simple and sensible growth. I have no magic wand."
He said that while he knows some executives who do seem to have the magic touch, such as Bernard Arnault, chairman-CEO of LVMH, whose products include Louis Vuitton handbags and suitcases ("People line up to buy his bags"), he doesn't, but "that doesn't stop me from taking opportunities."
He pointed out that when he took over his family's company, the Bollore Group, more than 20 years ago, revenue was $35 million while today it is $6.6 billion, a feat accomplished without going to the stock market. "I can be a valuable guide for Havas."
Mr. Bollore took control of Bollore Group in 1981 and turned it into a conglomerate with interests in paper, plastics, finance and media. In the last sector, Bollore Group's investments include TV production (via a 30% share of Societe Francaise de Production, one of France's largest TV production entities); radio (the company operates "Radio des Nouveaux Talents," which broadcasts over the Internet at www.radiont.com); TV (it operates Direct 8, a satellite channel); cinema (through a 10% share in cinema chain company Gaumont); and advertising (Havas and Aegis).
Havas ranks No. 6 among advertising holding companies, according to Advertising Age figures. With $1.14 billion in revenue, it is far smaller than its larger competitors. The benefit of being smaller, Mr. Bollore said, is that Havas has far fewer conflicts to preclude it from gaining new clients in particular categories. "All our competitors are trying to hide client conflict. That is not our problem," he said.
But size does matter in media, which is an important area for Havas. Mr. Bollore said Havas is striving to "do what few people have dared to do," by putting media back inside the creative agencies. MPG will not be combined with Havas' creative agencies, however: "We're not merging but building bridges," he said. "There should be a lot of love between media and advertising, whereas before there was just interest." (The increased collaboration is already happening on some accounts, such as with Hershey Co. in the U.S. Some MPG staff work side by side with Hershey's ad agency, Havas sibling Arnold.)
Won't buy over 30% of Aegis shares
MPG, which has long sought partners to increase its volume, could be a partner for Aegis Group, Mr. Bollore said. His stake in Aegis makes him the company's largest shareholder. "We have not invested in this by chance," he said. Though he is not seeking a seat on Aegis board, he said that "the game is open and we are ready to consider anything." He also said he is not interested in buying more than 30% of Aegis shares. Under U.K. takeover laws, an investor who owns 30% of a company must make an offer.
What he's really keen on is for Aegis and MPG to combine its media buying capabilities. "I think Aegis is interested in this idea." He mentioned that a partnership between the two companies has been discussed prior to his investing in Aegis. "Aegis and MPG have held talks before," he maintains. (David Verklin, CEO of Aegis' Carat Americas and Asia Pacific, at a UBS investment conference in New York last week acknowledged that Aegis and MPG have talked in the past and continue to do so. "We'll talk to anyone," he said.)
'The strategy of Vincent Bollore'
Asked why only he was speaking when other top Havas executives were present, Mr. Bollore said, "Because I'm telling you about the strategy of Vincent Bollore." As Havas' main shareholder, the Bollore Group provides "long-term vision. ... We don't have a short-term focus on financial results. We are going to judge Havas on the long term, not on the 2005, 2006 or even 2007 results. We will take opportunities. Some might surprise people."