The liquidity crisis is over,
The euro-strapped entertainment conglomerate, which went on a buying spree under former CEO Jean-Marie Messier, on Wednesday announced accelerated plans for selling assets to reduce debt and ease the liquidity crisis that came to a head this past summer.
The biggest item on the block will be all of Vivendi's publishing business, not just the freshly acquired U.S. publishing arm the company has already said it would unload. Meanwhile, Vivendi's new CEO, Jean-Rene Fourtou, said the company's Universal Studios movie business wouldn't be going anywhere soon, and Vivendi probably couldn't find a buyer big enough to acquire its music business even if it wanted to sell it.
Vivendi Universal, which last week finalized a 3 billion euro medium-term credit line to replace a 1 billion temporary credit line obtained this summer, says it now expects to sell 12 billion euros worth of assets by the end of 2003, rather than the 10 billion euros worth it said last month it would sell over the next two years.
While Vivendi is by no means exiting the media business, the selloff will reverse much of the expansion shepherded by Messier, whose judgment Fourtou criticized Wednesday and from whom Fourtou said Vivendi was trying to retrieve money paid this summer.
"We fight every day to gain room to maneuver, to gain cash," said Fourtou at a simultaneously translated press conference in Paris.
Vivendi's shares, which hit a 52-week low of $8.90 this summer, edged up 35 cents to trade at $12.34 Wednesday afternoon. The shares, however, are down 79% from their 52-week high, battered by liquidity fears, other company-specific issues and general weakness among media stocks.
Vivendi says it is cutting corporate staff in New York and Paris, and is selling or closing money-losing operations such as its Canal+ television operations outside of France. It will sell a minority stake in its video game unit, perhaps through a public offering.
Vivendi hasn't decided, says Fourtou, whether it will sell its 40% stake in the French telecom operator Cegetel, or whether it will increase its stake to gain majority ownership and thus access to Cegetel's free cash flow.
is interested in building its stake in the operator, says Fourtou. "Everybody's talking to everybody," he said.
Fourtou said selling the company's stake in satellite TV operator
was a possibility, suggesting that
chairman John Malone had expressed interest in it. Malone "wants to buy everything," said Fourtou, who added that Vivendi Universal might be able to find "opportunities" with Malone.
A Diller, a Dollar
Vivendi Universal Entertainment, the majority-owned partnership controlling Universal Studios, will remain in Vivendi's fold for now, Fourtou says. But, says Fourtou, the Barry Diller-led venture -- which some investors had speculated Vivendi would promptly put up for sale -- will eventually be unwound.
In a question-and-answer session, Fourtou was explicit in his criticisms of his predecessor Messier. "He loved deals. He was ready to overpay," Fourtou said. Messier was also too concerned with his image in the media, Fourtou told a roomful of reporters. "He liked you too much. ... He makes his decision on the basis of how you are going to react to it."
Fourtou said "nothing" would be paid to Messier now that he had left the company. In fact, he said, Vivendi is trying to retrieve salary accidentally paid to Messier this summer. "We paid him something in July by mistake. Out of distraction," said Fourtou.
But at the same time, Fourtou said Messier shouldn't be faulted for Vivendi's liquidity crisis. The stock market itself is to blame, he said, for assigning the now-ludicrous value of 20 billion euros to Vivendi's Vizzavi startup, and so are the media. "I am ready to excuse him," Fourtou said. "You are guilty, too. It went to his head."
Along with Vivendi's plans, Fourtou also tried to explain how the company's problems arose this year. "What is a liquidity crisis?" he asked, then dismissed standard scenarios such as notification from a bank to say a check is bouncing, or a finance director's prediction that the company won't be able to pay an upcoming commitment. "A liquidity crisis is a phone call from a ratings agency," Fourtou said.