Antoine Frérot, winner of the bitter battle of Veolia for Suez

Just days after Veolia finally made a deal to buy rival Suez, Antoine Frérot feels relaxed enough to describe himself in Machiavellian terms.

“Machiavelli said that whoever wants the end accepts the means. . . I am rational like Machiavelli, ”the head of Veolia told the Financial Times.

But ironic comments aside, Frérot dismisses suggestions – both from Suez and more broadly from Paris – that he was too aggressive in the fight for his company’s water and waste competitor.

“There was not a question of morality in what happened. There were only two incompatible goals, ”he said. “In the face of slyness. . . I am frank. I retaliated with what I call firmness, not violence.

The battle ended in a very Parisian way: in the upscale Bristol hotel after a three-star chef provided room service.

Opposite Frérot, there was Philippe Varin, president of Suez and former statesman. Beside them were a member of the board of directors on each side, a court-appointed observer and Gérard Mestrallet, the former boss of Suez who had been called upon to mediate.

The French state, which had already tried and failed to end the fighting, was not present. According to people familiar with the matter, Frérot insisted that the director general of Suez, Bertrand Camus, was not in the room.

The two CEOs had barely spoken since October, when Veolia bought 29.9% of Suez from French energy group Engie and pledged to take the rest. Suez retaliated, with Camus fierce in his struggle to remain independent.

Despite promises to convince Suez’s board of directors, a hostile offer was finally made in February and Veolia has put pressure on its goal. Council members have been threatened with criminal prosecution. And a deal was only announced this week as pressure mounted on both sides.

Last Sunday, after long negotiations, Suez has agreed to be acquired by Veolia, which increased its price from € 18 to € 20.50 per share. Veolia said it would resell part of Suez, including assets that were said to have been sold to overtake competition regulators, to create a smaller competitor. Legal threats must be ruled out. Shareholders on both sides are happy.

The price, Frérot told the FT, was “very close to the ceiling” of what they were prepared to pay. He also stressed that the governance of the new Suez was critical because if it “collapses in a few years, I will be held responsible”, and that he had insisted on limits on management remuneration at the new Suez and on lockdowns. -ups before the assets can be sold. .

Varin and Frérot have decided to share 80% of the capital of the new Suez between private equity groups allied on both sides. Ardian, who was aligned with Suez and wants control of the new group, is not happy, people briefed on the matter say.

For Frérot, 62, this transaction, which has preoccupied him for years, is an opportunity to create the “champion of ecological transition” by associating the two largest global water and waste groups.

Suez and Veolia, each with a long history, had come together before. In 2012, Suez tried to catch up with Veolia three years after the start of Frérot’s mandate.

At the end of the financial crisis, Frérot had to reduce his debt and change his strategy, winning the hostility of Henri Proglio, who had appointed him. The lessons he learned in the face of the challenges of the boardroom have been put to good use.

“When it comes to big changes. . . 20 p. 100 of people agree and want to go, 20% 100 of the people who are against it and want to slow you down. And there are 60% who are waiting to see who will win, ”he said. “It is therefore necessary, unfortunately, to get rid of the 20% of brakes and to convince the 60.”

If the obstacles to competition are removed, Frérot will lead a group with 37 billion euros in turnover from its office in the northern suburbs of Paris. We are a long way from the moment when his father, a country doctor, “took the bet” to send Frérot, 15, to the school of the famous Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris.

From there, he followed a well-trodden path of the French elite, through the French Polytechnic School, an engineering school that produces senior executives.

Divorced and father of three daughters, Frérot now lives in the wealthy 3rd arrondissement but is somewhat outside the Parisian setting.

A private man, he resists sharing too much of himself in the office, not wanting his decisions to be influenced by personal factors. This means that, according to a former colleague, he has depths that most cannot see.

A student of philosophy and sociology, he reread a biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss during his war with Suez. He smokes Craven cigarettes and collects “outdoor art”. The first time he bought a painting was when he was on military service in Germany for 100 deutsche mark.

Another former colleague said that Frérot had “a long memory” and “does not forgive easily”. But he may have to show another side of himself as he seeks to integrate a battered Suez. A man who has vocally supported a more inclusive form of capitalism should ignore accusations that he has gone too far.

“Opinion on Frérot will remain divided,” said a banker advising Suez. “He was a good general on the battlefield, he told people to come out and kill, and they did. But is violence the best way to get a good result? The integration of these companies will not be easy. “

But Frérot supports himself to bring groups together and has an eye on his heritage. More so, his bet is that “if you don’t change your goal, people will believe you.”

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