How French Billionaire Vincent Bolloré Built A Global Business Empire
Thanks to success in fields ranging from freight transport to digital media, Bolloré is among France’s richest corporate titans.
When Vincent Bolloré officially retired as the head of his family’s business empire in February of 2022, it was a historic day on numerous levels. For starters, the day marked the bicentenary of his family’s firm. A few months later the scion would turn 70, a cause for celebration for not only his family but for many of the most influential and powerful members of French society.
After all, this is a man who is close friends with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy amongst others, and even lent Sarkozy his yacht for a quick post-election mini-holiday. He and his family are among the richest in France, with an estimated net worth of about $10 billion; Bolloré is perhaps the epitome of power, wealth and influence in modern French society.
The family empire is today worth billions of dollars with activities stretching around the globe despite its humble beginnings. Founded back in 1822 as a paper manufacturer under the name Papeteries Bolloré, the business was located on the bank of the Odet river near Quimper in the region of Brittany. For the next century and a half, the family stewarded the business into a major supplier of both Bible paper and cigarette papers (they formed the famous OCB brand).
But the company hit a rough stretch beginning in the late-1970s, and it would be Vincent who would step up to help save it and then lift his family’s business to unimaginable heights. So while the Bolloré family can celebrate 200 years of success, it’s really the 71-year-old patriarch of the family who is being feted. After all, it was Vincent who turned the paper-manufacturing business into a multi-faceted conglomerate worth billions of dollars and employing tens of thousands of people globally, in a variety of fields from telecommunications to freight transport, global logistics and digital media. It was due to his business acumen that he was given the nickname “the little prince of cash flow.”
Born in 1952, Vincent Bolloré did not intially set out on a path leading to the family business. In fact, the young man began his career in banking, including a stint with the Edmond de Rothschild investment house. But as the Bolloré paper business continued to struggle into the early 1980s, Vincent determined that it was time to join the family business. He was resolved to not only save the business with a short-term fix, but to grow and, more importantly, diversify it so that future generations of the Bolloré family wouldn’t have to confront the same upheaval and uncertainty in the years ahead.
After taking over the business in 1981, Vincent began implementing his diversification strategy with a strong emphasis on international development as well as innovation, technology and focus on the companies’ core businesses.
Furthermore, he instituted a more scientific way of running the company, leaving sentimentality at the door with his willingness to sell or leave a business once he deemed it was no longer in the company’s best interest, even if he had spent years of his life building that exact business to its present stature. Today, the group focuses on three categories: Transportation and Logistics, Communications, and Industry. This is the rough blueprint that has allowed Bolloré to not only become one of Europe’s leading entrepreneurs but one of the most impactful, influential men on the continent.
In 1985, Bolloré Technologies marked their entry into the stock market and embarked on a series of well-planned acquisitions, which would include the fuel activities of SCAC, the Rivaud Group, RhinRhône, and Delmas-Vieljeux. In 1990, he combined SCAC and Rhin-Rhône to create Bolloré Energy. As the years passed, the Bolloré Group would venture into wide-ranging industries such as tobacco, electric vehicles and batteries, and even palm oil. Some have lasted, others were sold or disbanded, but it’s this willingness to push into new areas that has provided Vincent and the Bolloré family with many of their most profitable and successful endeavors.
Over time, the Bolloré Group significantly broadened its global footprint, with a notable focus on Africa, and strategically expanded its operations through purchases and collaborations in energy, logistics, media, and telecommunications sectors. Through subsidiaries such as Bolloré Logistics, Vincent created a shipping, logistics and transport powerhouse that controlled much of the shipping and ports in both West and Central Africa.
In 2000, the Bolloré Group secured the concession for the Donges-Melun-Metz pipeline, the third-largest oil pipeline in France. They sold their cigarette paper business to Republic Technologies that same year, eschewing any nostalgia for the long-held family business. The following years saw the Group engaging in various acquisitions, partnerships, and ventures, such as acquiring companies like Linea-Setramar, JE Bernard, Pro-service, and CSA Group, and launching projects like Direct 8 (a digital terrestrial television station), Autolib’ (an electric car-sharing service), and Bluely and Bluecub (electric car-sharing services).
But perhaps the area which has drawn the most attention for Vincent is the move into media and communications. Often compared to Rupert Murdoch for his influential and diverse media empire, and political connections, Bolloré has built himself a media, communications and telecom empire. From radio to newspapers, television, advertising and even music, Bolloré has invested across the communications and media sphere.
Many of these acquisitions are held within the Vivendi Group, the global media behemoth of which the Bolloré family owns a substantial share. Media company and Pay TV operator Canal+ Group, magazine publisher Prisma Media, advertising giant Havas, and video game developer Gameloft have all come under the Vivendi banner, providing the Bolloré group significant stakes in each of the major media industries.
Vincent also increased the family’s shareholding in publicly-traded companies like Vivendi and Lagardère, thus eventually leading to the pending full acquisition of publishing and travel-retail giant Lagardère by the Bolloré-controlled Vivendi. Only approved by the European Commission this year after a long review process, the purchase will make Vivendi the world’s third-largest publisher in the trade and educational markets, and will increase their global workforce from 38,000 at the end of December 2022 to almost 66,000 employees once the deal closes in the coming months.
Last year, the Vivendi group posted revenues of about 9.6 billion euros, and to show their global reach, some 43% of their employees were located outside of Europe. It’s a behemoth, and even more impressive, one that’s well positioned to thrive as legacy media continues trying to adjust to the financial realities of the 21st century.
Vincent’s firm belief in entrepreneurship, education and opportunity have become the cornerstone of the Bolloré family’s philanthropic works. Brought together in the Bolloré Group’s EarthTalent by Bolloré program, these principles have provided the basis for a global charitable enterprise focused on the same traits of entrepreneurship, education and hard work that Vincent emphasizes in both his work and that of those he’s working to empower.
According to the company’s stated philanthropic mission and goals, “Solidarity and entrepreneurship are core values of the Bolloré Group. These values nourish its desire to support ‘people, their ideas and their ability to materialize them’. Every year, the Group donates ‘a share of what it had the opportunity to receive’ to solidarity activities.”
To date, the organization has focused largely on two of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals crafted and adopted in 2015 by the United Nations. As expected, these goals are aligned with Vincent’s prioritized missions and focus on Quality Education (UN Goal #4) and Decent Work and Economic Growth (UN Goal #8) in an attempt to help empower the global community. These are especially important for young women around the world, who are too often left behind by such programs despite best intentions.
So as friends, family and honored guests joined to celebrate Vincent’s 70th birthday and retirement, there was reason for such commemoration as it was the culmination of decades of entrepreneurship and empire-building that few modern businessmen can match. While Vincent has officially relinquished control over the empire to his two sons, few believe that the scion of one of France’s most successful families will move into retirement and a life of leisure. If anything, age has only made the brilliant businessman even more focused, determined and committed to his empire, even if only as advisor to his sons.
Unlike some successful titans of industry, sentimentality doesn’t seem to be in Bolloré’s repertoire. A prime example is the way he and his family divested themselves of the African transport and logistics business that Vincent had spent decades building. Bolloré and his sons decided it was time to focus the family business elsewhere and pivoted accordingly. Regardless of the financial reports and profit/loss statements, it takes a huge amount of confidence, and just as much humility, to allow something you’ve built from the ground up to be sold off. But Vincent was solely focused on making the best business decision possible for his family and his company.
While others have scoffed at this hubris, or marveled at his willingness to dramatically change course, Vincent Bolloré simply did what he felt was best, regardless of what his peers, allies and critics thought of him; and he has reaped the rich rewards. It’s not that surprising really from a man whose family motto since the 18th century has been, “Kneel before God, stand before men.” And it’s safe to the say the “little prince” is now the king.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Maxim magazine.