Jean-Bernard Lévy, Vivendi chief executive, is stuffing his Christmas stocking with some of this year’s hottest gadgets.

A few weeks ago, he took control of Activision, the Californian video games publisher. Now he is negotiating to acquire outright control of Neuf Cegetel, the French alternative telecommunications and high-speed internet service provider.

If all goes to plan, SFR, the mobile phone operator 56 per cent owned by Vivendi and 44 per cent held by Vodafone, will acquire the 29.5 per cent stake of commodity trader Robert Louis-Dreyfus in Neuf Cegetel. SFR already owns 40.5 per cent of Neuf Cegetel.

With the Louis-Dreyfus stake, it will control 70 per cent of the group, forcing it to make a full takeover offer for the company. This will not be cheap.

Indeed, Neuf Cegetel is one of the most expensive telecoms companies in Europe.

Since it was floated on the stock market last year, it has seen its value double to close to €8bn ($11.5bn). That puts the cost to SFR of soaking up the 60 per cent or so it does not already own in the company at about €5bn.

Mr Lévy does not seem too bothered. He feels it makes strategic sense for SFR to secure watertight control of Neuf Cegetel. This at a time of renewed consolidation in the telecoms sector and a scramble to invest in high-speed internet and higher capacity networks to offer comprehensive internet, voice and digital television packages on mobile phones.

The deal also coincides with the French government’s imminent auction of a fourth mobile telephone licence that will further intensify competition in the French market, especially for high-speed networks.

He also recently suggested that Vivendi could quite happily spend up to €10bn in acquisitions if it boosted the conglomerate’s four business units: mobile phones, video games, music and pay television. Indeed, he recently considered investing in a Saudi Arabian telecoms company but decided not to because the price was too high and he would not have secured control. Vivendi has also been saying of late it would like to buy Vodafone’s stake in SFR but the UK mobile group is not a seller so far.

This could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the current transaction. After all, the eventual cost for Vivendi of any Neuf Cegetel acquisition would amount to 56 per cent of the total – in line with its present stake in SFR – with Vodafone picking up the rest. If the deal seems worth it for Vivendi, the biggest winner of all is likely to be Mr Louis-Dreyfus.

His group originally invested a meagre €10m when Neuf Telecom, as it was then called, was launched in 1998. His stake is now worth about €1.5bn and he decided it was time to take his profit.

Not a bad way to celebrate Christmas – especially if his Olympique de Marseille first division football team also finally hits a winning streak.

MAN of the year

The topsy-turvy fortunes this year of Hakan Samuelsson, the genial Swede who runs German truckmaker MAN, are eloquently evoked by his choice of Christmas holiday destination.

Last year, he sat in the cold of his homeland pondering the bitter personal defeat that came after MAN’s failed hostile bid for Sweden’s Scania.

Even worse, MAN’s independence looked compromised by the creeping influence of carmaker Volkswagen, which took a 29.9 per cent stake in addition to its 36 per cent in Scania. Rumours started to fly that Ferdinand Piëch, VW’s mercurial chairman, wanted to oust Mr Samuelsson.

But this Christmas, Mr Samuelsson is heading off to the sunnier climes of Brazil and that could well reflect his current cheerful mood.

His turnround of one of the oldest and most traditional conglomerates in Germany can claim to be one of the most outstanding business success stories in recent years.

Mr Samuelsson has transformed what was a sprawling example of the conglomerates so unloved by investors into a fast-growing, profitable group. In trucks, MAN has the good fortune of not being present in the US. It is thus not suffering the downturn on the other side of the Atlantic and is benefiting instead from the extraordinary growth in eastern Europe. Its diesel engine and turbines businesses are expanding rapidly.

Mr Samuelsson has demonstrated that, while the failed Scania deal showed that he lacked some savoir-faire in a takeover, his overall strategy and focus on the group’s operations are pretty impressive.

He disposed of low-margin steel trading operations as well as corporate oddities such as the St Antony vineyard.

VW still lurks as a threat to Mr Samuelsson. However, a deal with Scania is no longer a “must” to ensure MAN’s survival but a “nice-to-have” with VW and MAN already controlling 51 per cent of the Swedish company. Mr Piëch could still pounce but Mr Samuelsson would have no trouble finding a different job.

european.comment@ft.com

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