The turmoil of transition at Lazard
The secretive partnership of Lazard is not accustomed to public scrutiny, let alone attack from outside. But in early 2000, French entrepreneur Vincent Bolloré announced that he had acquired 31% of one company in the complex Lazard ownership chain. When Swiss bank UBS revealed that it too had acquired shares in other companies in the chain, Lazard chairman Michel David-Weill rushed to fortify the defences against the threat to his family bank's independence,which he cherishes above all else. In November 2000, David-Weill announced that Bolloré had gone away, having achieved what looked like a successful greenmail operation. But he is not the only threat to David-Weill's command. While battling his outside assailants in public, David-Weill has faced a less visible but more serious challenge from rebels inside the Lazard ranks. They have wrung significant concessions out of this last of the banking aristocrats. Now, if an independent Lazard is to thrive, it must stem the tide of departures and rebuild morale within.
When French entrepreneur Vincent Bolloré began buying shares in Rue Impériale de Lyon - one of the companies in the complex Lazard chain of ownership - in the early summer of 1999, the aristocratic chairman of Lazard, Michel David-Weill, invited the upstart investor to his grand villa at Cap d'Antibes on the Côte d'Azur. The meeting was frosty. The incensed grandee warned Bolloré that he had made a bad investment and should sell out immediately. Bolloré defiantly bought more, not less. In a further provocation, Bolloré was even quoted as saying he was pushing to "break up the Lazard empire and sell the parts to the highest bidder".
The war machines were at the gate of the Lazard edifice, and David-Weill pulled up the drawbridge. He added a 10-year voting agreement between the chief partners and himself in the articles of association of Société Civile Haussmann Percier, a private company that represents the interests of the four controlling families in the Lazard empire. Société Civile Haussmann Percier is Lazard's final guarantor of independence.
But Bolloré had not made such a bad investment as David-Weill claimed. He had been advised by distinguished Lazard partner Antoine Bernheim (owner of 11.2%