Dark eyes, stern glasses with big black frames, square jaw … Whether in French, English, Italian or Spanish, languages that he speaks perfectly, the businessman is thrifty on words. He seems to be in control of his outward expression as much as his inner feelings. “He gives the impression of very strong control, says a relative. He does not have free speech. What interests him is effective action, therefore discreet.”
Two major cases still link it to France: first of all, the future of the Lagardère group, of which it owns nearly 20% and where it has entered into a pact with Vivendi, the main shareholder with 26.6%. shares. It is by far “the most violent fight” that he has had to fight. A four-year battle during which Lagardère multiplied criminal proceedings and before the Financial Markets Authority (AMF) against Amber Capital, alternately described as a vulture fund, an activist shareholder, a savage capitalist … “We we claim to be active shareholders, attached to good governance standards, and we have been operating in this way for fifteen years, well before the implementation of environmental, social and governance criteria. ” On several occasions, he feared to lead the battle too many, the one which would risk causing the fall of his company and of the team which accompanied him for fifteen years, with ups and downs.
Former boss of the investment company Eurazeo, Patrick Sayer knew the man in both situations, a few years apart. He met him in New York, shortly after the creation of Amber Capital, in 2005, a spin-off from Société Générale, where Joseph Oughourlian, a graduate of Sciences-Po and HEC, had made his first part of his career. . At 33, he found himself at the head of a fund managing more than $ 6 billion in assets, from his lavish offices on Park Avenue. And among its holdings: Eurazeo. “Unlike investors obsessed with results, he opened the dialogue on long-term prospects, says Patrick Sayer. He made us wonder about the meaning of our action, I was asking for our meetings.” The financial crisis of 2008 almost got the better of the ambitions of the young financial prodigy. Many customers have left. “When I saw him again, remembers the ex-boss of Eurazeo, he occupied a small grim office from which he managed less than 1 billion assets, and the man was the same, modest.”
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Joseph Oughourlian and his team then had a terrible decade. It moved Amber’s headquarters to Europe in 2012, split between London and Milan. This is where the bulk of his investments were. “And we have suffered a lot from the Euroscepticism of the Americans, he admits. In hindsight, it was not the best choice, but we did well.” Amber Capital then became the governance specialist, now at the heart of all its struggles. When he wanted, in May 2020, to storm Lagardère, during his general meeting, and propose new directors, Joseph Oughourlian mobilized his former business relations, Patrick Sayer in the lead. Project code name: Stronger Lagardère 2020.
He also rallied Brigitte Taittinger, administrator of Suez, of which he had however jostled the board, two years earlier and convinced its managing director, Bertrand Camus, to sell assets. “Joseph explained his demands to me,” she explains, “and I would not have committed myself without the relevance of the cause: the lack of transparency vis-à-vis shareholders.” The boss of Amber Capital believed in it until the end: “Vivendi made the decision during the vote at the general meeting, at the last minute. They may have had a chivalrous vision of family capitalism, but they have changed notice with the arrival of Bernard Arnault. ” Shortly after the failure of the putsch, Joseph Oughourlian invited the whole team that had accompanied him to a Parisian restaurant. To each, he offered a bottle of Taittinger grand cru cuvée Stronger Lagardère 2020 champagne.
The other great affair, of heart that one, binds him to RC Lens, legendary coal football club, of which he has owned since 2017 and which has just made his resounding return to Ligue 1. A great mystery that this foray into the French football, if we ignore the history and personality of Joseph Oughourlian. This is not his first investment in football. In 2015, he bought Millonarios de Bogota, Colombia’s most successful club. The founder of Amber Capital has a special history with this country, that of his grandmother. He took over the club in the midst of a debacle “to fight against the crook” who owned him. He now occupies the first places in the championship.
The story is similar to that of RC Lens. “It is an essential meeting in my life, confides Gervais Martel, former president of the club, who went to London to convince the businessman to invest. I was a business manager, I explained my course, I helped him understand how French football works. ” The handover lasted a few months: “In a team, you need a center forward and a goalkeeper”, illustrates Martel. Joseph Ourghoulian made up for the losses, which approached 12 million euros and continues to invest: 18 million euros in the last transfer window of players. “It is a financial investment as I do regularly”, assures the person concerned. But for Daniel Percheron, former PS president of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region and administrator of the club, the London investor “fell in love” with RC Lens, its supporters and the Bollaert stadium: “We are very lucky to have it. He agreed to complicate his life and put his hand in his pocket. “
Normally, Amber’s boss comes very regularly to Bollaert and attends the Sang et Or matches in the presidential stand, along with local personalities. It happened to Edouard Philippe, former colleague at Science-Po, to make the trip. Xavier Bertrand, the president of Hauts-de-France and presidential candidate, is a frequent visitor. “They get along very well, the three of us sometimes have dinner together,” says Jean-Pierre Jouyet, former French Ambassador to London, where they met. The former collaborator of François Hollande at the Elysee Palace detects in Joseph Ourghoulian “a great power of seduction, comparable to that of an Emmanuel Macron or an Alexandre Bompard.” He who was boss of the Autorité des marchés financiers also welcomes the intuition of the investor who has “bought the Lens club down and bring it up”.
The businessman does not like this “media resonance” too much. He speaks rather of the 28,000 loyal supporters, deprived of a stadium because of the health crisis. He praises “the ch’tis values” of people who work: “There is no culture of superheroes in this team, but a culture of mines, a collective spirit that we must preserve.” The businessman is very far from his bases in this region where 40% of those under 25 are unemployed, where 36% of the population declares less than 10,000 euros in income per year.
He grew up in the beautiful Parisian districts. It bears the name of his grandfather, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, a refugee in Beirut where he headed the Bank of Lebanon from 1962 to 1983. His British mother was a nurse, his Lebanese father is an internationally renowned neuropsychiatrist. “I am French, of French culture, and yet I do not have a drop of French blood, as Romain Gary or Manuel Valls would say,” he proclaims. But he does not deny a form of atavism. Discreetly, he got involved in the Armenian cause. For Lebanon too. “As soon as I can, I make a commitment, he confides. It is perhaps the effect of my seventeen years in the United States: you have to give back to society what it has to you. given.”
When he comes to Lens, he takes the opportunity to spend one or two days there, stays at the Louvre-Lens hotel and holds meetings with the team he himself has set up. “It hits quickly,” observes Gervais Martel. The businessman logically sided with the reformers of French football. “We must improve our product and solve the problem of disenchantment with our main distributor, Canal +,” he said. His peaceful relations with the leaders of the parent company Vivendi and the Bolloré camp could be useful. He was not always “with them”, especially in the Gameloft or Telecom Italia cases. But they agree on different subjects. “Joseph is very pragmatic, like us, believes a member of the general staff. He is a developer with an industrial vision.”
At the end of January, Vivendi bought back 9.9% of the capital of Prisa, of which it is the main shareholder with nearly 30% of the shares. “We came together around an idea”, comments the founder of Amber, praising the history and the brands of the Madrid company, over-indebted, badly managed since the death of the founder in 2007: the radio Cadena SER, the Santillana publishing group, the daily El Pais or the 20% of the holding company of the World. As non-executive chairman, Joseph Oughourlian pushed for the restructuring of management, under the interested gaze of Vivendi executives, who can imagine what would have become of Lagardère if Amber had succeeded last year. Or what they might be planning together for the next few months.
Source: Challenges en temps réel : accueil by www.challenges.fr.
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