After transforming a stodgy French water company into a sparkling communications concern, Jean-Marie Messier now faces the task of smoothing the union between his creation and a Hollywood studio. Patrick Frater examines his credentials.
Jean-Marie Messier is the ideal person to put together a trans-Atlantic conglomerate. A Frenchman who has attracted praise from American business partners, he may be able to bridge that sometimes unfathomable cultural divide which exists in the French psyche.
Some in France tend to gripe at him for presentations in English, but deep down they hold him up as their own because he has built an impressive empire on Anglo-Saxon terrain. To the North Americans, who are going to going to be crucial to the Vivendi Seagram merger, and then to the merged Vivendi Universal, he is a man who speaks their language, literally. Although he is not above sprinkling his conversation with a little insider jargon, Messier is not one to talk in riddles in any language.
Messier started out with the traditional first step for a French high flyer, attending the ENA business school before the almost obligatory stint in the civil service. He chose the treasury and was soon a personal advisor on privatisations to right-leaning prime minister Edouard Balladur. After that he began his career of bucking the trend and shifted into investment banking. He spent five years at Lazard Freres and became the blue-blooded firm's youngest ever partner.
In 1994, he got the chance to put his advice into practise for himself when he joined Generale des Eaux. The giant utilities and construction firm with over 140 years of history was more akin to the civil service than a world-beating model for 21st century free enterprise. On reaching the top just four years ago, the then 39-year old started reshaping the hydra into a more straightforward bicephalous beast; water services and communications. This was done through a programme of disposals and massive acquisitions on both sides of the Atlantic. Vivendi is now France's second largest telco, controller of 49% of Europe's leading pay-TV firm and one of the world's largest water suppliers.
The two operations have rarely looked comfortable, but Messier has milked what cross-over is available and rebranded them with the suitably anonymous but gushing Vivendi label.
A practising Catholic with five children, the baby-faced Messier has described the prospect of selling the water business as "like murdering our mother." But that is precisely what now seems on the cards if he is to give Vivendi Universal the debt-free start in life that he plans.
The ability to take tough decisions, however, is a characteristic Messier trademark. An innate self-confidence has earned him the nickname "J6M" - Jean-Marie Messier, Moi-Meme, Maitre Du Monde (Jean-Marie Messier, myself, master of the world).
Less typical of top businessmen from gradualiste France is his speed of action. Messier is happy to take quick - apparently snap - decisions involving billions of dollars and to sort the financing out afterwards. It should come as little surprise to Messier watchers, who saw him take over the venerable Pathe group only to spit it out a week or two later minus its BSkyB shares, to see Messier apparently announced as head of the $100bn group even before the deal has been signed.
Messier's deal-making skills and his political adroitness - he has managed to steer a careful course between France's left and right and is a champion of job creation and full employment policies - are likely to be called on heavily in the next few months. The new Vivendi Universal group will need plenty of pruning and clever corporate restructuring.
After that he will be called on to be a manager, the area which his (few) detractors point to as his potential weak spot.