Jean-René Fourtou

Chairman and chief executive officer, Vivendi Universal

Nationality: French.

Born: June 20, 1939, in Libourne, France.

Education: École Polytechnique, MS, 1960.

Family: Wife Janelly (maiden name unknown).

Career: Bossard & Michel, 1963–1972, engineering consultant; Bossard Consultants, 1972–1977, member, board of directors; Bossard Consultants, 1977–1986, chief operating officer; Rhône-Poulenc, 1986–1999, chairman and chief executive officer; Aventis, 1999–2002, vice chairman of management board; 2002–, honorary chairman; Vivendi Universal, 2002–, chairman and chief executive officer; International Chamber of Commerce, 2003–, president.

Awards: Named an officer of the Légion d'honneur; named Commandeur of the Ordre National du Mérite.

Address: Vivendi Universal, 42 avenue de Friedland, 75380 Paris Cedex 08, France;

■ Jean-René Fourtou transformed the chemical group Rhône-Poulenc into a successful international company. In July 2002 he could not resist a new challenge—to get Vivendi Universal on its feet again. It was not an impossible mission for this former consultant, who had also led the Bossard group and had put his conception of management into practice at Rhône-Poulenc. With his consultancy experience, Fourtou focused on the value of teamwork and decentralization of power.


Fourtou was adept at networking and profited from his many business friendships. Early on, his acquaintance with the French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing put him in line to become the CEO of Rhône-Poulenc. Later, his relationship with Jurgen Dormann, CEO of Hoechst, directed him to a position

Jean-René Fourtou. AP/Wide World Photos.
Jean-René Fourtou.
AP/Wide World Photos

at Aventis. And it was Claude Bébéar, CEO of Axa, who led him to Vivendi Universal. Fourtou's career was helped by influential friends who pushed him in the right direction.

Fourtou's first significant professional experience was in acquisition and development at Bossard, an international logistics-oriented group offering consulting services in strategic management, with three strong marketing centers—in Europe, the United States, and Asia and the Pacific. Following the group's privatization, he worked to establish the company in the United States and then forged a French-German partnership with Hoechst, from which was born Aventis. To secure the success of Aventis, he kept on the president of Hoechst and took on the position of vice president. He also promised to withdraw when the venture got off the ground. In May 2002 Fourtou gave Igor Landau the direction of Aventis.


Fourtou gave up his position at Aventis to become the vice chairman of its supervisory board, with a view to spending more time with his family. But for this aficionado of tennis, good wine, and meals with friends, retirement did not last long. Indeed, just two months later, in July 2002, Fourtou, at the age of 63, took on the challenge of reviving Vivendi Universal when he became CEO of the company, replacing Jean-Marie Messier. Nothing would have prepared Fourtou to play the role of media superman, and he was surprised to find himself in the spotlight. But Claude Bébéar, president of the supervisory board of Axa and administrator of Vivendi Universal, declared: "Jean-René Fourtou is not afraid of challenges. It is clear that he may have not expected to find the group almost broke. Faced with this tough work, he could have chosen to leave. Instead, he told us: 'We roll up our sleeves, and we go for it'" (, October 2002).


In 2002 Vivendi Universal, a Franco-American group diversified in media, telecommunications, and environmental services, was looking for a high-level French manager who had proved successful in resolving crises. The manager's mission would be to evaluate the financial situation and define and realize a strategy to reorganize the group. When he arrived, Fourtou expected to stay only a few months. The day after his nomination he declared: "I have priorities. Today I have only two: solve the accounts crisis and to elaborate a strategy. For the rest, we will see later" (, October 2002).

After eliminating the risk of bankruptcy, Fourtou knew that he had to tidy up the portfolio of Vivendi Universal. With the privatization of Rhône-Poulenc in 1993, he had learned to work under the markets' pressure, but despite the strains, he always had made effective decisions. His strategy for Vivendi consisted of writing down EUR 12 billion in assets over 18 months, reducing expenses, building a new management team, keeping employers and trade unions informed, revising the financial management system, and developing a new plan for the future. In the first year and a half, he improved the finances of Vivendi Universal by refocusing the group on media and telecommunications. Fourtou proved that he knew how to act forcefully in a crisis. The company needed such a leader, capable of freely managing, to reassure the markets and return value to the shareholders.

Fourtou's boldest move came at the end of 2002, when he chose to increase company debt by EUR 4 billion as a way to take control of the mobile phone subsidiary SFR, at that time coveted by the British company Vodafone. The move was a success, since the block of shares for which Vodafone had offered to pay EUR 11 billion grew in value to EUR 16–18 billion by early 2004. Moreover, SFR shortly became the main source of profit for Vivendi.

In the course of 30 months Fourtou managed to release the financial stranglehold on Vivendi. The amount of the company's previous debt, more than EUR 35 billion, was reduced to less than EUR 5 billion by the end of 2004. One financial analyst declared that Fourtou's priority was not to focus on the size of the company's portfolio but rather on how to spend this money. His plans with respect to the market were enacted opportunistically, in the moment. Fourtou refined his ideas gradually. As Robert de Metz, who orchestrated the transfers, specifies: "We move at the same time on three or four ideas. If plan A does not work, we always have a Plan B, C and D."


"Organizing is not about putting things in order; it is about giving life," Fourtou asserted. He maintained a distance from his subordinates and was not given to motivational corporate training. He was described as a skillful and clever diplomat, but he did not care about his "image." He was not an impressive man, but he did not care to impress. He simply moved ahead with the task in hand. A former administrator of Rhône-Poulenc, Serge Kampf, founder of Cap Gemini, highlighted his "incredible stubbornness," characterizing Fourtou as a "street fighter," a pugnacity he had developed in childhood.

Nevertheless, Fourtou was an excellent negotiator. Seeing business as a power struggle, he knew how to dramatize and bluff. According to Henri Lachmann, CEO of Schneider, "He has his trump cards; he has nothing to lose or to prove." In 2002 he put this skill to good use when he told creditors that he would take them to court if they could not work out a better deal than they were offering. Some critics said that he sometimes acted too quickly, without thinking through a problem. Others criticized him for focusing on what the company had to sell and not better managing the resources they held.

Although his skill as a strategist was debated, Fourtou was still considered a good manager. When he arrived at Vivendi Universal, he brought together a new and very effective management team. He understood how to create a climate of trust, making himself accessible without becoming overly familiar with his staff, and delegating responsibilities. His style was to look at the big picture, not the everyday details. As Jean-François Pontal, the former CEO of Orange and a former colleague of Fourtou's at Bossard, put it, "Give him a bone, and he will make a dinosaur." At the same time, Fourtou was called cynical and sometimes manipulative. As one former colleague at Rhône-Poulenc said, for him "truth can be sculpted."


By 2004 Vivendi Universal was out of danger and looking toward a new goal. Some analysts believed that Vivendi should consider selling or spinning off its disparate businesses. Fourtou strongly disagreed with that perspective, focusing instead on an ambitious plan to transform Vivendi Universal into a European media giant. Although he was very secretive about the project, he confessed to exploring many ideas and continued to say, "I do not exclude anything."

See also entries on Rhône-Poulenc S.A. and Vivendi Universal S.A. in International Directory of Company Histories .

sources for further information

Bourboulon, François, "Vivendi Universal à la mode Fourtou," Journal du net , September 26, 2002,

Carreyrou, John, "How CEO Put Troubled Vivendi Back on the Road to Survival," Wall Street Journal , September 3, 2003.

Clow, Simon, "Vivendi's Asset Mix Poses New Problem; CEO May Have Restored Balance Sheet, but Remaining Businesses Share Little Crossover," Wall Street Journal , May 27, 2004.

Mattei, Jaqueline, "Dossier Fourtou: Jean-René Fourtou, un pompier pour Vivendi Universal," L'Expansion entreprises , July 4, 2002.

Nora, Dominique, "La troisième vie de Jean-René Fourtou, L'Expansion economie , April 29, 2004.

Université Laval, "Vivendi Universal; Grandeur et décadence," 2003, .

Woessner, Géraldine, "Vivendi Universal doit choisir entre le téléphone et les jeux vidéos," L'Expansion , August 7, 2002.

—François Therin

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