Vivendi to be fined for sneaky Italian job – report

Vivendi’s reputation as the bad boy of telecoms is set to continue as rumours emerge of a potential $300 million fine from the Italian government over the prolonged TIM saga.

It would appear the pleas from Vivendi desperately claiming innocence have not been bought by officials. According to Reuters, the Italian government will be fining the French media giant up to €300 million due to its effective control of Telecom Italia (TIM).

It was only a couple of weeks ago Consob, the Italian securities regulator, deemed the French had been stepping a bit close to the line, which some might have assumed already. Vivendi CEO Arnaud de Puyfontaine has been playing the part of the good guy more recently, but not even the French charm could win out here.

It is a slightly suspect position. Vivendi controls just under 25% of shares at TIM, but has a board full of friendlies, its own CEO currently in charge and a number of other execs holding key positions. Some might have questioned the logic of TIM’s independence considering the French influence, but this might not be a bad outcome for Vivendi.

Should the proportion of shares increase above 25%, Vivendi would have been forced to acquire the operator. However, the 24.9% position is alright for some, most notably the European Commission. With this fine, de Puyfontaine might be giving himself a little pat on the back. Business can continue as usual, and €300 million is considerably less than buying the rest of TIM. Assuming of course the rumours of the fine turn out to be true.

TIM’s market capitalization is currently $19.1 billion (according to Google Finance at the time of writing), with Vivendi owning 24.9%. Some might argue that logically for de Puyfontaine to wield his influence, assuming he is of course, at the telco he should have to acquire it. This would mean an acquisition in excess of $15 billion, even without the premium on top which you see in many such examples. Suddenly €300 million doesn’t look too bad.

Elsewhere in the big wide world of Vivendi, the bad boy of telecoms is proving to be a thorn in the side of games publisher Ubisoft. The French has chosen to abstain from voting on any resolutions at the shareholder meeting, despite pleas from the management team for support for key initiatives.

One of the issues at the centre of the storm is surrounding a compensation plan for staff including the firm giving free shares to its employees. This is not an unusual initiative for large companies to run, and is used by many to incentivise employees, though opposition from Vivendi might not be a surprise as it would dilute the stake in Ubisoft. The measure failed.

It is a different industry, but it another example of Vivendi battling for control of the boardroom. Vivendi has defended its position stating “the Ubisoft Board of Directors has completely intermingled the interests of employees with those of senior management,” while also highlighting it has not yet been invited to the boardroom despite it being the largest shareholder.

Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot has continually resisted the charms of Vivendi, stating Ubisoft ambitions would be better served by remaining independent of the media giant. According to Bloomberg, Guillemot believes Ubisoft can grow 15-20% a year for the foreseeable future, though this trajectory would be blighted by Vivendi, which does not understand the games publishing space.

Despite resisting the Vivendi gaze for the moment, it might not be too long before it has no choice. Vivendi’s current stake stands at 26%, though in French law, a 30% stake would force an acquisition of the company. Despite the conflict with the largest shareholder, Guillemot has proved he can do it on his own. Share price has increased more than 70% over the last 12 months, though de Puyfontaine seems to have quite a bullish nature to him. It might not be too long before this is another notch on the Vivendi bed post.

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