Cannes 2008

Bollore Remains in the Driver's Seat (We're Not Talking About Aegis)

In Annual Trip to Cannes, Havas Chairman Talks About His Next Passion: Electric Cars

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CANNES (AdAge.com) -- Havas Chairman Vincent Bollore thinks the French ad network is in good shape to weather the global economic crisis he expects, and he's still interested in acquiring Aegis Group, but Mr. Bollore's real passion right now is an electric car his Bollore Group is launching next year.
Vincent Bollore
Vincent Bollore Credit: Sipa

On a day trip to the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival today, Mr. Bollore squeezed in his third annual press conference at the festival, a Havas lunch with a few journalists at the Carlton Hotel's packed beach restaurant and at least one client meeting.

Less than a year away
"In less than 12 months, we're committed to deliver the first electric car in the world," Mr. Bollore said. "My people are very busy with that, so they don't push me about why I don't ask for a special general meeting of Aegis" to continue his fight to get seats on Aegis' board of directors. Bollore Group is the single-largest shareholder of Aegis.

He said there are 10 prototypes so far (all blue) of the four-seat electric car Bollore is introducing in a joint venture with Italian car design studio Pininfarina. Mr. Bollore said his group is investing $1.5 billion in the project, including developing a lithium battery that will run 155 miles on a single charge and building two factories, in North America and France. Producing a big lithium battery that won't overheat -- like the batteries that recently caught fire in Dell laptops -- has been a challenge.

"[In a car] that's not a fire, it's a barbecue," Mr. Bollore said.

Production will ramp up slowly, starting with 1,000 cars in 2009, then 5,000 in 2010 and 10,000 the following year until reaching 30,000 cars a year -- the maximum number of batteries the factories can produce.

Seguela to handle launch
Jacques Seguela, Havas' vice chairman and an advertising legend in France (he's the "S" in Euro RSCG), said he'll handle the electric car's launch personally. Because there will likely be a waiting list initially for the car, Mr. Seguela said the launch will focus on 10 key cities around the world, and use the internet and perhaps a sophisticated direct-marketing campaign.

Seated in a brown armchair on a small stage at the Carlton Hotel, Mr. Bollore outlined Havas' recent progress: After years of decline before he bought about one-third of the company, Havas eked out 0.6% revenue growth in 2006, a healthy 7.1% jump in 2007, and numbers that look good for the year to date, he said.

"But we know the crisis will come," he said. "We think a group like ours can catch opportunities. We are ready."

Regarding Aegis Group, Mr. Bollore is sticking to his position that as Aegis' largest shareholder with a 29.9% stake, Bollore deserves two seats on the board even though Aegis has rejected his candidates five times due to the perceived conflict inherent in Mr. Bollore being chairman of rival Havas.

"We're not in a hurry," he said. "We are long-term investors."

Solidarity with Sorrell
Some of his other relationships are going better. Mr. Bollore and WPP Group Chief Executive Martin Sorrell openly admire each other, and Mr. Bollore said he considers Mr. Sorrell more a partner than a competitor.

"J'aime bien Martin Sorrell," he told a French journalist. "He's a very clever guy."

It's intriguing to think of the two tycoons partnering in some venture, but perhaps Mr. Sorrell shouldn't count on hanging out much with Mr. Bollore. Asked by a French reporter who he would rather spend the weekend with, Mr. Sorrell or his close friend, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr. Bollore said, "Sarkozy, definitely."
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