THE MAN WHO TRIED TO BUY THE WORLD by Jo Johnson

THE MAN WHO TRIED TO BUY THE WORLD

Jean-Marie Messier and Vivendi Universal
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Densely rendered account of a onetime French bureaucrat’s ill-starred media and utilities conglomerate.

Journalists Johnson (Financial Times) and Orange (Le Monde) see Jean-Marie Messier, who briefly remade French water company Vivendi into a major New Economy presence, as symbolizing “a new generation of French businessmen . . . culturally more attuned to American entrepreneurialism” (and, indeed, they note that their journalistic version of events diverges from those in Messier’s memoir). Messier began as an enarqúe, one of the elite class of French officials, but his singular ambition propelled him to the front ranks of European CEOs. His repositioning of an obscure utility as a player in the coming wireless era showed Europeans the possibilities already grasped by moguls Messier admired, like the Bronfman family and Barry Diller (Messier eventually embraced Enron-esque excess, contributing to his downfall). Much of this account is spent on the authors’ recreation of Messier’s dizzying string of mergers and acquisitions, culminating with an enormous deal with the Bronfmans for their Seagram/Universal conglomerate, resulting in a narrative that at times requires an MBA to decipher. This complexity, of course, is reflected in unsavory reality: by 2002, Messier’s empire was crumbling, with board members fleeing, valuations dropping, and analysts (and the Bronfmans) alienated. By then Messier found few friends at home in France, where he’d infuriated many by adopting American-style CEO arrogance and dismissing “the French exception” (government subsidies for cultural production), igniting a furor within film studio Canal Plus. In less than a year it was all over: he was forced to resign, and Vivendi Universal’s assets were liquidated. Johnson and Orange boast great fidelity of detail, but the tone is arid, with little sense of the human cost of Messier’s downfall among the dizzying flow of moguls and mergers, despite plenty of victims (the Bronfmans foremost). Still, business types may find valuable this tale of unforeseen pitfalls in the race toward global synergies.

Intriguing tale from the boom, though one hardly optimistic on globalization’s wisdom.

Pub Date: Nov. 10th, 2003
ISBN: 1-59184-018-X
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Portfolio
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2003