Messier, Jean-Marie

▪ 2003

      The spectacular rise of French businessman Jean-Marie Messier ended in July 2002 when he was forced to resign as chairman and CEO of Vivendi Universal. Beginning in the mid-1990s, he had transformed a domestic French utility company into a global conglomerate centred on media and communications. In doing so, however, he had brought together a number of ill-fitting businesses, and as a promoter of global enterprises without due respect to French cultural traditions, he offended the sensibilities of fellow Frenchmen. What finally brought him down, however, were old-fashioned problems—plummeting stock values, record losses, and enormous debt.

      Messier was born on Dec. 13, 1956, in Grenoble, France. He was educated at the École Polytechnique (1976–79) and the École Nationale d'Administration (1980–82) and from 1982 to 1988 held positions in the Ministry of Economy and Finance. He joined the investment bank Lazard Frères in 1989, the youngest partner in the firm's history. In 1994 he moved to Compagnie Générale des Eaux, originally a water utility company that had come to include businesses such as waste management and construction. Messier became head of the company in 1996, restructured the business, and in 1998 renamed it Vivendi, to suggest revivification. By 1999 he had a controlling interest in Canal Plus, Europe's largest pay television service and by law a source of financing for the French film industry. In 2000 Vivendi bought Seagram, which included Universal Pictures and Polygram Records. Changing the company's name to Vivendi Universal, Messier placed the nonmedia businesses in a division called Vivendi Environnement. He changed the name of Polygram to Universal Music Group and took over other media businesses, including the American publisher Houghton Mifflin, cable and production company USA Networks, and on-line music service Other businesses included phone companies, Internet services, computer software, and amusement parks. He was made a chevalier of the French Legion of Honour in 2001. The same year, Messier moved to New York City, which became the base of his media operations.

      A flamboyant American-style capitalist, Messier referred to himself as moi-même, maître du monde (“myself, master of the world”), or J6M. (The title of his 2000 autobiography was As with other media conglomerates, however, Vivendi Universal began to struggle, and the company had a record loss in 2001 of €13.6 billion (about $12.4 billion). In the first six months of 2002 alone, the stock lost more than 60% of its value, while the company found itself threatened with a debt of €33.3 billion (about $32.3 billion). When in early 2002 Messier sacked the head of Canal Plus for poor financial performance, the action became an issue in the French elections, and by July Messier had lost the backing of the French as well as the North American members of the board. Following his resignation, Messier began writing an account of his rise and downfall at Vivendi. The book, Mon vrai journal, was published in November.

Robert Rauch

* * *

Universalium. 2010.

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