Book Review: The Man Who Tried To Buy The World

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The Man Who tried To Buy The World

by Jo Johnson and Martine Orange

Portfolio ©2003
225 pages

The Rise and Fall of Jean-Marie Messier

Some have called Jean-Marie Messier the most ambitious French empire builder since Napoleon. In a mere six years at the helm as CEO of Vivendi Universal, he was able to buy up assets as big as MCA Records, Universal Studios, USA Networks, and a variety of other media assets, theme parks, video game producers and Internet companies. By 2002, he became the victim of his own ambition when it became clear that he had bought more assets than his company could manage. Investigative journalists Jo Johnson and Martine Orange examine Messier’s great strides and mistakes, dissecting the problems that led to his ouster from his lofty position.

Shaking up the World

Vivendi started as a French water utility. Since 1994, it was run by Jean-Marie Messier, a flamboyant Frenchman who, in 2000, would shake up the world with the astonishing news that it had acquired Seagram — owner of the recording giant Universal Music — for $46 billion. Within the next couple of years, Messier would spend over $100 billion of Vivendi Universal’s money to create one of the largest entertainment companies in the world, one larger than all others besides AOL Time Warner.

The authors describe Messier’s personality as “a strange blend of French technocratic arrogance, wanna-be Hollywood showmanship, and investment banker charm.” They write that it was his own weaknesses and love of deal making, self-promotion and risk that led to his downfall and toppled his empire.

What was once a company that was seen as the boldest attempt by a foreign media group to challenge the American goliaths of the entertainment industry, would by early 2003 be mired in criminal probes by the U.S. Department of Justice and French prosecutors, as well as formal investigations by both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the main French stock market regulator. A once proud beacon of hope for the image of French business would eventually become a source of great financial loss and an embarrassing blight on its international reputation.

The authors write that the story of Vivendi Universal and its charismatic leader contains more than just the tale of one man’s hubris and the collapse of an industrial empire. They explain that it is the perfect prism through which to view France’s ambivalence toward the United States and to globalization. Although Messier became a symbol of a new generation of French businessmen that had embraced the American version of entrepreneurialism over the state capitalism of Old Europe, he was eventually brought down by the American investors he courted. By the end of 2002, he was seen by police as a beaten, angry, bitter man.

Consumed by Ambition

The authors depict Messier as a deal maker who became so consumed by his own ambition that he became blind to the advice of his chief financial officer and refused to listen to reason even as the dominoes of his empire were tumbling at an incredible pace. They describe the fateful conference calls where powerful men traded barbs with each other, confidence in a leader quickly dwindled, and mild suspicion became outright contempt in the final days of Messier’s reign. They recount his final days as Vivendi’s stock prices plunged and Messier belligerently took shots at all his detractors, including the journalists and newspapers that challenged his decisions in the press.

After several requests from his board members to resign, Messier refused to relinquish his role as chief executive officer of Vivendi Universal. But, as depicted in the dramatic conclusion of The Man Who Tried to Buy the World, board members watched as Messier’s charisma failed him. While corporate giant WorldCom shocked the world by falling into bankruptcy, Vivendi Universal’s fate seemed just as bleak. As his loyalists turned on him, Messier was asked by his board to resign. Once he was finally ousted as CEO, the world watched as the empire he built was quickly dismantled and the Vivendi Universal he had created would cease to exist. ~

Why We Like ThIs Book

The Man Who Tried to Buy the World offers a detailed glimpse of what happens when a leader oversteps his boundaries and forgets the basics of smart investing. Great investigative reporting and historical overview capture a modern tale of ambition, deception, control and demise that is highlighted with colorful details that bring the struggles of an international business titan into plain view where his giant dreams and human foibles can be seen with distinct and captivating clarity. ~

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