Advertisement

Vincent Bolloré: the scourge of genteel French firms

Vincent Bolloré built his family paper-making firm into a conglomerate that sells everything from electric cars to Madonna’s music. Now he’s been accused of interfering in African elections. Jane Lewis reports.

893-profile-634
Vincent Bollor: charming, but difficult to read

2016 Christophe Morin/IP3

While the attention of much of France this week was focused on the progress of the country's "Trump whisperer", Emmanuel Macron, in Washington, an intriguing drama was unfolding back at home. News of the arrest of Vincent Bollor, one of France's most powerful tycoons, following allegations of corruption in Africa, exploded like "a judicial bomb" in the heart of the Parisian establishment, says the French business magazine Challenges.

Advertisement - Article continues below

After presenting himself for questioning, Bollor was banged up in a police cell fuelling fears among the country's financial elite, says The Times, that "influential figures" "can no longer rely on leniency from French investigators".

The billionaire, who stepped down as chairman of Vivendi last week in favour of his son Yannick, is best known for his media interests. But the roots of his business empire stretch a good deal further. A former investment banker, Bollor, 66, parlayed his family paper-making firm into an industrial conglomerate whose multiple holdings range from rubber and palm-oil plantations and an electric-car venture (run by his daughter), to Madonna's record company.

Telecoms, banking, energy, freight, advertising you name it, he's involved. The Bollor Group currently controls 16 of Africa's biggest container ports, making him "pivotal" to the continent's overseas trade. Prosecutors are now investigating whether Bollor and two senior colleagues interfered in elections in Guinea and Togo in 2010 by dangling the cut-price expertise of its advertising and communications group, Havas, in exchange for port concessions.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

Hobnobbing with politicians is nothing new to Bollor, a longstanding friend and neighbour of the former French premier, Nicolas Sarkozy, says Advertising Age. That friendship prompted "a low-flame scandal" in 2007 when Bollor's "loan of a yacht to the French president sparked cries of conflict". But this latest imbroglio could be trouble on a different scale.

Variously described as "ironic, sarcastic and difficult to read", Bollor can be "charming, with intense flashes of charisma", says Ad Age. But he has always been "a wild card" in business. In the early 1970s, the firm's paper business hit financial difficulties and was later sold to the investment group Edmond de Rothschild. It was there the young Vincent cut his teeth in investment, says EuropeanCEO. In 1981, he bought back the family company for a franc.

At that point, Bollor began "accumulating", says Ad Age, building stakes in companies until he either controlled them, or could exit at a profit. Quickly becoming known as "the scourge of genteel French companies that were big and slow", he gained notoriety for his impertinent tilts at great French companies such Bouygues, Path and Lazard Frres.

Bollor doesn't like the term "corporate raider", preferring to describe himself as a brocanteur, which translates as "dealer in secondhand goods". He sees himself as a long-term industrialist for whom raiding is merely "a lucrative hobby". A family dynast to the core, worth $7.5bn, according to Forbes, Bollor has often said his greatest achievement was reviving and transforming the eponymous family firm, which he hopes to hand on to his children. He has long planned to retire in 2022 the 200th anniversary of the firm. "Save the date. There will be a big fiesta," he once boasted. That plan might now be subject to changes.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Recommended

Visit/economy/people/601414/masayoshi-son-the-god-of-tech-tests-the-faithful
People

Masayoshi Son: the God of tech tests the faithful

Masayoshi Son, the founder of Japanese tech giant Softbank, has had a bad crisis. He has bounced back before, and will do again, he insists. It wouldn…
1 Jun 2020
Visit/economy/people/601377/top-four-financial-villains-of-the-last-20-years
People

Top four financial villains of the last 20 years

Despite MoneyWeek’s 1,000 issues, we struggled to find a page of material on people we considered particularly worthy of honour. We were spoilt for ch…
26 May 2020
Visit/economy/people/601333/great-frauds-in-history-lee-b-farkass-dodgy-mortgages
People

Great frauds in history... Lee B. Farkas’s dodgy mortgages

Lee Bentley Farkas transformed TBW into one of the largest mortgage brokers in the US – his fraud is reckoned to have cost around €3bn.
20 May 2020
Visit/economy/people/601332/the-making-of-warren-buffett
People

The making of Warren Buffett

The man who “triumphed in the long game by practising a simpler, purer version of capitalism” is widely hailed as the world’s greatest living investor…
17 May 2020

Most Popular

Visit/economy/uk-economy/601427/covid-bounce-back-loans-and-inflation
UK Economy

What bounce back loans can tell us about how we’ll pay for all this

The government will guarantee emergency "bounce back loans" for small businesses hit by Covid-19. Inevitably, many businesses will default. And there'…
1 Jun 2020
Visit/investments/commodities/601433/commodities-possibly-the-biggest-opportunity-in-todays-markets
Commodities

This looks like the biggest opportunity in today’s markets

With low interest rates and constant money-printing, most assets have become expensive. But one major asset class hasn’t. John Stepek explains why com…
2 Jun 2020
Visit/economy/global-economy/601420/james-ferguson-the-virus-the-lockdown-and-what-comes-next
Global Economy

The MoneyWeek Podcast: James Ferguson on the virus, the lockdown, and what comes next

Merryn talks to MoneyWeek regular James Ferguson of Macrostrategy Partnership about what's happened so far with the virus; whether the lockdown was th…
28 May 2020