By Leila Abboud and Gwénaëlle Barzic
PARIS (Reuters) - Billionaire French businessman Vincent Bollore gave the first hints of his strategy for Vivendi as he took over as chairman on Tuesday, saying he saw the potential to grow its media assets while also paying a healthy dividend.
Vivendi, one of France's biggest companies, has sold off three businesses, including telecoms operator SFR, in a two-year overhaul aimed at cutting debts and reviving its share price.
Bollore, who with a 5 percent stake is its biggest shareholder, will be the key decision maker as the company seeks to forge a coherent whole out of its three remaining businesses and starts to look for growth opportunities.
Vivendi now owns the world's biggest record label, Universal Music Group, France's biggest pay-television operator, Canal Plus, and Brazilian broadband specialist GVT.
"Vivendi's strategy is now clearly fixed," Bollore told an annual shareholder meeting in his first public remarks on the company since he became vice-chairman last year.
"It is to transform the company from a financial holding to an integrated company focused on content".
Despite his influence, the 62-year old tycoon - famed for building a family owned transport business in Africa and raiding blue-chip companies - has so far said very little about where he wants to take Vivendi. That has left investors and analysts guessing whether his intentions are to sell off more of the group, or seek to build something from its current portfolio.
One thing is sure, Vivendi is expected to hit the acquisition trail late this year and next to seek growth. People familiar with the situation have told Reuters it has up to 10 billion euros ($14 billion) to remake itself in media depending on how much debt it is willing to take on.
Vivendi is expected to weigh acquisitions in different areas from Canal Plus and Universal Music Group, which are already too big in their respective markets to expand further, they said.
However, they did not rule out that Canal Plus could also seek to expand its geographic footprint - which is now France, Poland Vietnam, and some African countries - to offset slowing growth in its domestic market.
Regardless of deals, Vivendi has pledged to keep its current BBB debt rating from Fitch and Standard & Poor's, and its Baa2 from Moody's.
GROWTH AND DIVIDENDS
In terms of shareholder returns, Bollore said Vivendi could in future pay out about 40-50 percent of earnings in dividends.
"The board will decide the dividend policy based on what opportunities are available," he said, referring to acquisitions. "But in a growing business - and we think our media activities will grow - it seems reasonable to distribute 40 to 50 percent."
Vivendi has recently paid out about 40-50 percent of adjusted net earnings as dividends, while also noting a trend in the media sector of moving towards a 30-40 percent payout ratio.
Bollore did not say anything about what acquisitions Vivendi should target. But he did say the group could squeeze more value and cost savings out of its three business lines by making them work together, something which has eluded Vivendi in the past decade despite repeated attempts. "In reality there is hidden value at Vivendi," said Bollore. "There are more synergies between the three business units than Vivendi has been able to exploit in the past."
He gave as an example how Brazilian telco GVT could be used to sell more television content from Canal Plus. GVT has used Canal Plus' expertise to win some 700,000 pay-TV customers only one year after launching the service.
Bernstein analyst Claudio Aspesi expressed scepticism that Vivendi's diverse businesses had much in common. "Investors would probably prefer not to hear a re-run of the old script – Vivendi saying it is looking for synergies - it's a bit like a horror movie," he said before the shareholder meeting.
"In the past, the management has tried to demonstrate value of holding assets together, but operating synergies were never found."
Vivendi shares were up 0.5 percent at 1420 GMT in a flat European market. Shares that were trading at 12 euros when the firm's overhaul started two years ago have settled at around 19 euros after hitting 21 euros in February, the highest level in three years.
In addition to Bollore's debut, the shareholder meeting was a victory lap for veteran chairman Jean-Rene Fourtou, who saved Vivendi from bankruptcy in 2002 and piloted the past two years of strategic overhaul.
Bollore thanked Fourtou for bringing him to Vivendi and said he would nominate Fourtou as honorary board president.
"I think this young man still has a lot to give," Bollore said of 75-year-old Fourtou.
Bollore arrived as a Vivendi shareholder in 2012 when he agreed to be paid in shares for selling 60 percent of his broadcast TV channels Direct 8 et Direct Star to Canal Plus. He later bought additional shares on the market.
(Editing by Louise Heavens and Mark Potter)