PARIS (Reuters) – France’s business elite closed ranks around publishing group Lagardere (LAGA.PA) on Monday with LVMH’s Bernard Arnault and Vivendi’s (VIV.PA) Vincent Bollore swooping in to bolster its defences against London-based hedge fund Amber Capital.
The two billionaires bought shares in the group, which earlier this month survived Amber Capital’s most daring attempt yet to shake up its so-called commandite” governance structure, which concentrates power in the hands of Lagardere boss Arnaud Lagardere.
Arnault, France’s richest man, agreed to buy a 25% stake in Lagardere Capital & Management (LCM), the personal holding company of Arnaud Lagardere, shoring up its finances after its debts exceeded the value of its 7.3% stake in the Lagardere Group.
A source close to Arnault’s stake purchase in LCM said it cost less than 100 million euros ($109 million) and was driven by Arnault’s friendship with the late Jean-Luc Lagardere, Arnaud’s father.
Bollore’s Vivendi, meanwhile, increased its stake in Lagardere SCA to 16.48%. It is now the second-largest shareholder after activist fund Amber Capital, which last month failed to loosen Arnaud Lagardere’s grip on the company.
Although he owns only 7.3% of the Lagardere Group, Arnaud Lagardere controls it via a so-called “commandite” governance structure, a hybrid between a partnership and a limited liability company which means shareholders cannot remove him as general partner.
Shares in Lagardere surged 13.9% to 12.77 euros by 1046 GMT.
Bollore already owned more than 13% of Lagardere SCA via Vivendi and analysts speculated that he and Arnault may be eying assets of Lagardere, owner of Hachette, the world’s third largest book publisher, with authors such as Donna Tartt.
For Vivendi this could be media and entertainment assets and for Groupe Arnault, a partnership in travel retail, analysts said.
“The deal further reduces the likelihood that the “commandite” structure will be dismantled as it solves the potential solvency issue that Arnaud Lagardère was facing,” Kepler Cheuvreux analysts wrote in a note.
“We believe Vivendi and Groupe Arnault will try to accelerate Lagardere’s refocusing strategy while eying some assets,” the analysts said.
Vivendi’s media empire includes French language publishing group Editis.
Lagardere has been locked in a battle with Amber Capital for four years. The hedge fund has raised its stake in Lagardere to 18% in recent weeks, but Lagardere shareholders this month rejected the activist investor’s call to replace Lagardere’s supervisory board.
Amber declined to comment on Arnault and Vivendi’s moves.
Lagardere has long been under fire for its sprawling business mix and for underperforming on the stock market.
The link-up between Groupe Arnault and LCM will “strengthen the corporate structure and financial capacities of LCM. The family groups led by Bernard Arnault and Arnaud Lagardere will act in concert with regard too Lagardere SCA,” the statement said.
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