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Like the smooth bronze lions prowling behind his desk, Vincent Bolloré enjoys stalking his prey.

From his 17th-floor office overlooking the Bois de Boulogne, he is planning his fifth run at Aegis in two years.

His attempt to place two directors on the advertising and marketing group’s board has been convincingly re­buffed on each occasion but the polished sixth-gen­er­ation leader of a Breton family empire is playing a long game.

“My belief is that, one day before 2022 [his planned retirement date], you will have new directors on the board of Aegis,” Mr Bolloré says in an interview with the Financial Times. “For me, it’s not so long.”

Colleagues speak of a driving ambition to make his mark in advertising and say that a recent decline in valuations of potential targets could tempt him to place larger bets than his 29.9 per cent stake in Aegis and 26.5 per cent holding in Havas.

The cash thrown off by traditional Bolloré Group activities such as freight-forwarding, coupled with the proceeds from selling a stake in a steel pipemaker, mean that it has capacity to spend between €1bn ($1.6bn) and €2bn, Mr Bolloré says.

“It’s right that we are interested in making acquisitions and in profiting from some of the opportunities around,” he adds.

For now, he admits, “we are dwarfs near giants” in the advertising industry.

That may not be the case for long, he implies.

Mr Bolloré sees a chance to take advantage of a strong euro and a tighter credit market.

While rivals are dependent on borrowings for acquisitions, “Vincent buys with his own money,” says David Jones, head of Euro RSCG, the Havas agency.

Mr Bolloré’s move into advertising came six years ago. Havas had hit trouble and Mr Bolloré saw marketing – “a big field but one with not many players” – as one in which he could make his mark.

Since taking control of Havas, he has added a television channel and French freesheets to the trophies in his office, which is cluttered with mementoes of his stevedoring business, photographs of handshakes with politicians and a model of his private jet.

He has been drawn to Aegis by the prospect of building global scale in media buying, where Aegis’s Carat and Havas’s MPG are second-tier players in the US.

What he has to offer is the stability of a long-term shareholder, according to Mr Jones. Aegis’s supporters argue, however, that the company is less in need of that period of calm that Havas was when Mr Bolloré arrived after years of boardroom turmoil and underperformance.

They also agree with analysts at Citigroup who said last month that they saw “limited strategic rationale” in the potentially diluting combination.

At Havas, Mr Bolloré has improved operating margins from 8.2 per cent in 2006 to 11 per cent last year, and cut debt, but Aegis can point to a stronger performance, reporting 15 per cent margins in 2007 on 11 per cent growth in sales, compared with 4 per cent revenue growth at Havas.

Aegis’s second-half performance was “astonishing”, Mr Bolloré admits, but he is critical of the Aegis board, likening them to children who have shut themselves in their room. “It’s logical that they open the door” eventually to their largest shareholder, he insists.

Aegis fears that Mr Bolloré is seeking creeping control, effectively trying to take the £1.5bn ($2.9bn) company over without paying a premium. Mr Bolloré, who will not rule a full bid in or out, admits that his record has been to take minority stakes.

Given the implacable opposition from the Aegis board, why continue the pursuit? His answer is that he is taking the long view.

He says: “I think the seventh generation is more interested in media and communications than paper and transportation.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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