Havas is gearing up for a showdown this week as shareholders meet Thursday to consider Vincent Bolloré's request for four seats on the board of the industry's sixth-largest holding company.
The French corporate raider triggered speculation about the future of Havas after acquiring a 20 percent stake in the company last year. Havas' board is urging investors to veto Bolloré's demand, citing his unwillingness to offer the Paris-based company specifics about his intent. But late last week, the dissident investor —known to shake up management at underperforming companies—said in an interview published in Le Monde that his interest in Havas is long term and he does not plan to take control of the company. He said he intends to keep his stake between 20 percent and 30 percent.
Bolloré, who said he will attend the shareholders meeting to argue his case, is quoted as saying: "The question is whether a board of directors which represents only 3% to 4% of the capital can decide not to grant representation to a shareholder who has 20% and is not a competitor.
"It is out the question that we would launch a takeover bid for Havas," he emphasized.
Bolloré could not be reached.
Havas executives have worried that Bolloré could sell his stake to competitors like WPP Group or Publicis Groupe or try to force a break-up of the parent of Euro RSCG, Arnold and Media Planning Group. Thanks to the speculation about his interest, and the run-up in Havas' share price, Bolloré by some estimates has made almost $50 million on his investment in Havas.
In the interview, Bolloré said he knows both WPP CEO Martin Sorrell and Publicis chief Maurice Lévy and acknowledged he has had contact with Sorrell since acquiring the holding in Havas. (Sources said Sorrell, who was unavailable for comment, is interested only in MPG, while Lévy denies any desire to buy Havas.)
Bolloré insisted to Le Monde: "Today we are convinced that Havas should remain an independent group, grow over the long term as far as its financial resources will permit."
Even before the interview, it was known that Bolloré was critical of Havas CEO Alain de Pouzilhac's attempts to buy Grey Global Group last year. "If Alain de Pouzilhac wants to resign, and if our representatives are elected, there are talented leaders both internally and externally to replace him," Bolloré said to the paper last week.
During the past year, rumors circulated that Bolloré might try to bring in TBWA Worldwide CEO Jean-Marie Dru to run Havas. In last week's interview, Bolloré allowed that Dru "seems to me to present the necessary qualities" to replace de Pouzilhac. The 58-year-old Dru, who recently signed a new contract with Omnicom Group, was traveling late last week and unavailable for comment. TBWA declined comment. A Havas rep did not return calls.
Bolloré's camp has lined up institutional investors' support in advance of the shareholders' meeting. Last month, after influential French businessman Claude Bébéar, the founder of Axa, publicly threw his support behind Bolloré's request for seats, Havas' shares rose in a new round of speculation about the company's future. Deminor Ratings has also said it is advising clients to vote in favor of Bolloré's request.
De Pouzilhac, meanwhile, claims to have convinced 150 of the company's investors, large and small, to form what he called a "shareholder's club" in support of his continued leadership at the company.
In addition to one for himself, Bolloré is seeking board seats for Thierry Marraud, Marc Bebon and Cédric de Bailliecourt.
Friday on the Nasdaq, Havas shares closed at $5.91 on very light trading. In the past year, the stock has traded within a range of $4.30 to $6.48.