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Permira, the UK private equity group, also approached Vivendi before the French media and telecommunications group’s abortive discussions with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, it has emerged.
Jacques Espinasse, chief financial officer of Vivendi, said Permira and KKR originally made a joint overture to discuss taking a 20 per cent stake in the group.
Mr Espinasse told a Morgan Stanley conference in Barcelona on Friday that such a stake could have been used to take control of the group over time, cautioning: “Love stories sometimes start with 20 per cent but …end up with full control.”
He made clear, however, that Vivendi had seriously entertained KKR’s later approach with a proposal to take the group private.
“We had been working with them for a couple of weeks, challenging them, and they challenged us,” before KKR told Vivendi it would not pay a substantial premium to the existing price, as this would require too much equity.
The talks had been “very friendly”, Mr Espinasse claimed, in contrast to many companies’ anxious reactions to private equity overtures. “It was a very professional job and they are good people,” he said. “We learned a lot of things from them and they learned a lot of things from us.”
Mr Espinasse said Permira and KKR had expressed their intention not to break up the group, whose assets range from record labels and video game producers to telecom and broadband investments.
Hopes of a break-up of Vivendi have revived speculation over SFR, the French telecoms operator it jointly owns with Vodafone of the UK. However, Mr Espinasse insisted it would not sell or reduce its stake in SFR. Describing its partnership with Vodafone as “a honeymoon”, he noted that the UK group had sold assets in Japan and Belgium, and was reviewing its business in Switzerland. “If they came to that conclusion [in France] we are buyers. We are not sellers.”
By contrast, he said that Vivendi’s 20 per cent stake in NBC Universal, the US broadcaster controlled by General Electric, remains non-core.
“We’re not in the driver’s seat,” at NBC Universal, he said, noting that the terms of its investment give it “an exit window”, in which it could sell the stake, in January 2007.
“We’re reflecting on our position in NBC Universal and will take a decision at the latest in January 2007,” added Jean-Bernard Levy, chief executive, speaking at a separate forum in Paris.
Analysts are unsure of GE’s willingness to spend the money required to buy the stake when NBC is still trying to regain the leading position it once had among US networks.
“If we don’t do it in January 2007, we have another window to do it in 2008, we have another window to do it 2009. In 2010, GE can kick us out if they want to, and we have another window in 2011,” Mr Espinasse said.
Mr Espinasse said Vivendi had received no further private equity approaches, but insisted that its tax situation would not prevent a public-to-private move or hostile takeover.
“It makes [a deal] a little bit difficult but it’s not impossible,” he said. “It’s not a poison pill.”
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