Patrick Drahi’s audacious raid on BT

Patrick Drahi, the Israeli-French billionaire, has stealthily become the biggest shareholder in the British telecoms firm, seeking to unleash its true value. But his record might well make BT nervous.

When news flashed through the City last week that a company run by Patrick Drahi had stealthily become the biggest shareholder in BT, the response from Brits outside the industry was: who? No longer, says the London Evening Standard. The audacious £2.2bn share raid on Britain’s biggest telecoms company has put the “extremely private” Israeli-French billionaire, and his company Altice, “firmly in the spotlight” – as well as in the driving seat at BT.

Having set up Altice in 2001 as a holding company to invest in cable and mobile operators, Drahi, 57, has spent the past 20 years building up one of the world’s biggest telecoms outfits (and a near $12bn personal fortune) via a series of aggressive and cannily leveraged deals. But he is arguably best known for his extracurricular activities as an art lover, says The Times. Having amassed a collection featuring a bevy of works by Picasso and Matisse, he stunned the art world in 2019 by paying an “eye-watering” $3.7bn to take underperforming 275-year-old auction house Sotheby’s private – explaining that the trophy purchase was an “investment for my family”.

Speedy decisions

Drahi is nothing if not cosmopolitan. Born in Casablanca, to a family of Moroccan Jews whose ancestors fled the Portuguese inquisition, he moved to Montpelier in France as a teenager with his parents – both maths teachers. These days, Drahi holds Israeli, French and Portuguese citizenships and lives in Switzerland where he has homes in Geneva and the ski resort of Zermatt. But his education was classically French. After studying engineering at the elite École Polytechnique in Paris, he started out in business somewhat humbly, selling cable TV packages door-to-door for the Dutch electronics company Philips. Still, according to a recent biography, “he was a young man in a hurry, driven by the desire to get rich”, says The Sunday Times. He also showed an early penchant for speedy decision-making. After being introduced to his teacher’s sister at a party while still a student, he proposed immediately. Thirty years on, Drahi and his wife Lina are still together.   

Drahi’s first big business win was when he convinced local mayors in the south of France to allow him and an American partner to lay TV cables in their towns, says the Evening Standard. The business flourished, eventually catching the eye of American John Malone’s UPC company, who paid Drahi in UPC shares, which he sold for €40m just before the dotcom bubble bust. That deal seeded the foundation of Altice two years later.

A gifted dealmaker

Malone has described Drahi as a “genius”. Judging by Altice’s rapid expansion across the US and Europe, he’s certainly a gifted dealmaker, says the Daily Mail. But he has a history of “financial engineering”, asset-stripping and ruthless cost-cutting. When he bought the French telco SFR, “staff reportedly found themselves scrambling around for toilet paper and printer refills”.

The tycoon has gone out of his way to stress that his raid on BT isn’t the prelude to an all-out takeover. His stated aim is to help the company’s infrastructure arm, Openreach, wire up 25 million UK households by 2026 and unleash the telco’s true value: BT is still valued at a relatively lowly £19bn (some analysts believe Openreach alone could be worth as much as £30bn). It’s all reassuring stuff – for now, says The Sunday Times. Drahi has arrived on the scene “dressed in a cuddly outfit – but he is a fox, and BT should be on guard”.

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