Billionaire French owner of Irish telecoms company helps young people on the road to success
Xavier Niel is not short of a penny.
And his name is now well-known in Ireland as it is in France, having bought the nation’s telecoms company, eir.
Born into a middle-class family in Paris – his father a lawyer for a pharmaceutical laboratory, his mother an accountant – the successful entrepreneur has risen exponentially through the ranks of the rich and powerful.
Owner of 70 per cent of Iliad telecom group, his worth is measured in the billions. And it has just jumped even more.
When he recently announced plans to take Iliad private, media reports said his fortune soared overnight, boosting it by $3 billion to an estimated $10.4 billion. His announcement of a “simplified public tender” sent the company’s stock up 61% on the Euronext Paris.
“Iliad is now entering a new phase in its development, requiring rapid changes and major investments which will be easier to undertake as an unlisted company,” Xavier said. “Our ambition for Iliad is to accelerate its growth to make it a leading telecommunications player in Europe.
Iliad is a giant in European telecoms, with 15,000 employees, 42.7 million subscribers and $7 billion in revenues in 2020.
A college drop-out who embarked on his entrepreneurial voyage aged 15 when his father reportedly gave him a Sinclair ZX81 computer as a Christmas present, he is now a global celebrity, admired by many, including it seems, the President of France himself, Emmanuel Macron.
In 1999, Xavier created Free, a French Internet service provider, four years after investing in France’s first internet provider, WorldNet, which he sold at the height of the dot-com boom in 2000 for more than $50 million.
Known as the French Bill Gates, Xavier is now gaining another kind of reputation – for developing a new class of entrepreneurs that he hopes will help France become a tech powerhouse.
“France is an amazing place, and entrepreneur is a French word, so I simply want there to be more more entrepreneurs in my country, people who can create big companies,” he said.
And he’s putting his money where his mouth is by guiding others along the path he followed.
He built and paid for Ecole 42, a place where a thousand students study computer coding in rooms called ‘beehives’ for up to three years – from artificial intelligence to gaming – entirely free. And anyone can apply. One student is reported to be working at the French Presidential Palace in cyber security.
He also converted an old station into ‘Station F,’ now a transport hub for ideas, where hundreds of startups are based, taking advantage of low-cost office space and contacts with tech giants.
As a result, Xavier has risen to become one of the best-known faces among a select few self-made French entrepreneurs to hit billionaire status without coming from dynastic wealth or building a fortune in the luxury sector.
It will be very interesting to see what he does back in Ireland with eir.
IRISH CITIZEN WITH STRONG FRENCH CONNECTIONS
Humble, self-effacing, industrious, practical, methodical, quick thinking, ardent desire for excellence, superb negotiator.
These are some of the classic characteristics of a Virgoan and probably only Richard Moat, CEO of Technicolor, can say if they all fit.
Born September 8, 1954, Richard, an Irish citizen with a home in Dublin, has used many of the skillset above to chart a high-flying career across several decades in the oil sector, telecoms and technology sectors in a wide range of countries, including the US, Thailand, Romania, England, Ireland and now France.
From working-class roots, Richard earned himself a scholarship to the upper echelons of education in England, the University of Cambridge, from which he graduated with an MA Honours in Law. He followed this by studying corporate finance and accounting at the London Business School.
His professional life has included ten years with telecoms operator Orange during which he moved from Denmark to Thailand to Romania, spending more than five years in Bucharest.
But it was over eight years in Ireland, first as CFO, then CEO of Eircom, later to become eir, the national telecoms operator, that sealed his links to the Emerald Isle.
His success there was capped when he eventually sold the company to Xavier Niel, the French billionaire entrepreneur and investment fund manager.
Linked to France for so many years, Richard – not content with resting on his laurels and enjoying the good life including playing golf and watching his beloved Coventry FC – decided to take up another professional challenge – accepting the position of CEO of Technicolor.
After two years in the leader’s chair, he can now look back with a strong degree of satisfaction, describing the situation in a Sunday Times newspaper recently as “a complex operation.”
Richard is confident of the future in which he sees revenues stabilising at about €3 billion this year before rebounding, as the effects of the pandemic wane, towards the €3.7 billion achieved in 2019.
Interestingly, Richard compares his experiences at Technicolor with those at eir in Ireland.
“The other time in my career that was equally difficult was when I joined eir in 2012 after it had just emerged from examinership,” he said. “It needed to revolutionise its commercial position if it was going to survive. The difference was that, while eir’s recovery was slow and painful, he said the “restructuring at Technicolor was done more quickly and the impact could be seen more quickly.”
He says there are no plans to split up the group. “We continually look at the strategic options but there’s no plan to split up the group. I’m not saying it would never happen but it’s not something that’s concentrating our minds.”
Richard has taken on a role quite different to his previous ones, as he explained. “I’d led five businesses including eir before I came to Technicolor, all based in one country and one industry. The challenge that Technicolor presents is that it’s a public limited company in France that has global operations in four different industry sectors, none of which have any real connection with each other. There are no synergies. It’s fascinating from a management point of view. I guess that’s what attracted me to it.”
Technicolor’s global reach — America accounts for 75 per cent of revenues and its operations stretch from Los Angeles to Bangalore with South Korea under consideration.
Technicolor’s prospects are riding on the special effects and animation division. It generated 22 per cent of group revenues but more than 40 per cent of operating profits in the first nine months of last year. Moat expects its contribution will jump to a third of group revenues when Hollywood returns to full throttle.
On Technicolor’s high-margin visual effects division, he said, “it’s got the greatest prospects, it’s the one we’re most excited about.”
Films on current release to which Technicolor has added the finishing touches include Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci and Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story.
“The film industry has come roaring back,” he says. “We’ve got a great pipeline with 75 per cent of revenues for 2022 already secured through agreements with the Hollywood studios and the major distribution platforms such as Netflix and Amazon.”
Referring to his experiences in Ireland, Richard said, “As I said many times, when I was running eir, the route to seeing your share price improve is simple: reliable, predictable financial results. There’s undoubtedly some scepticism out there about Technicolor. It has had quite a history of difficult times and profit warnings. It’s my firm intention to reverse this but it takes time to convince people. I’m confident it will be achieved.”