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  • Colin de Korsak

Patrick Drahi, from Telecom Engineer to Media Emperor

Best known for his takeover of SFR, Patrick Drahi is a daring entrepreneur who is sometimes criticised for his controversial methods. From his beginnings as an engineer to his many takeovers, find out how Patrick Drahi became a telecommunications and media giant.

Patrick Drahi's fortune is estimated at over $4 billion. As the head of SFR and a number of media companies, he is one of France's best-known entrepreneurs. Here's a look back at the career of a businessman like no other.

Starting out in telecommunications

Born in Casablanca in 1963, Patrick Drahi grew up in an environment that instilled in him early on the values of perseverance and ambition. His move to France at the age of 15 offered him new educational and professional opportunities. His passion for science led him to enter the École Polytechnique. There he rubbed shoulders with the country's future engineers and entrepreneurs, including Eric Denoyer, Pascal Faure and Marc Darmon. After this first stage, he continued his studies at the École Nationale Supérieure de Télécommunications in Paris.

These years of training provided him not only with technical expertise in telecommunications, but also with an in-depth understanding of market dynamics and business opportunities. In 1991, thanks to his know-how and funding from his father, Patrick Drahi founded CMA. This telecoms consultancy enabled him to familiarise himself with the telecoms landscape in France, while forging links with key players in the industry.

It was in 2001, with the creation of Altice, that Patrick Drahi really began to invest in cable. Thanks to an aggressive acquisition strategy, Altice expanded rapidly. The group acquired telecoms operators in France, such as Numericable, consolidating its position in the national market. In addition, Patrick Drahi is expanding internationally, acquiring major operators such as HOT in Israel and Tricom in the Dominican Republic.

The takeover of SFR

Drahi is best known for his leadership of SFR. In 2014, the French telecoms landscape was in turmoil. SFR, the country's second-largest mobile operator, was being put up for sale by Vivendi, its owner at the time. Two major contenders emerged for the acquisition: Numericable, led by Drahi via Altice, and Bouygues Telecom. What followed was a battle of bids and counter-bids, which dominated the headlines for weeks. Drahi, with a tempting proposal, eventually won. The acquisition, worth more than €13 billion, was finalised in November 2014. The deal not only transformed the Altice group into a telecoms giant, but also reshaped the French competitive landscape.

Patrick Drahi has been at the head of SFR since 2014.

Bold expansion into the media

At the dawn of the 2010s, the media and telecoms landscape was undergoing major upheaval. The emergence of streaming, the growing consumption of online content and the need for ubiquitous connectivity were transforming consumer expectations. Patrick Drahi was quick to identify these trends and envisage a convergence between telecoms and media.

In 2016, he made a remarkable entry into the media world by buying the Libération press group. The daily was experiencing financial difficulties. Drahi's acquisition was seen by some as a rescue, but by others with scepticism.

The following year, Drahi pursued his convergence strategy by acquiring NextRadioTV. This group, which owns channels such as BFMTV and RMC, strengthens Altice's presence in the audiovisual sector. With this acquisition, Drahi has established himself as a major player in the sector, capable of reaching a wide audience through a variety of channels. The businessman explains the reasons behind his takeover of BFMTV :

The tycoon is not stopping at France. In 2015, Altice acquired the American channel Cablevision for more than $17 billion, giving it direct access to the American media market. This expansion across the Atlantic proves his desire to diversify and internationalise his media portfolio.

Beyond traditional media, Drahi is also showing an interest in high-end markets. In 2019, he pulled off a masterstroke by buying Sotheby's, one of the most prestigious auction houses, for nearly $4 billion.

A bold and controversial entrepreneur

Patrick Drahi's success has been accompanied by a financial strategy that has often been criticised. In particular, he has been criticised for his intensive use of debt, as reported in this article in La Tribune. By using debt as leverage, Drahi has been able to finance numerous acquisitions, enabling Altice to grow rapidly and gain market share. However, Altice's high level of debt has repeatedly been a cause for concern for financial analysts, investors, and even some regulators. In the event of an economic slowdown or a change in market conditions, the group could find it difficult to honour its financial commitments.

In addition to his debt strategy, Drahi is also known for his cost-cutting management style. In telecoms and media, he has often sought to optimise operations, sometimes to the detriment of employees. These austerity measures have sometimes been perceived as excessive, leading to tensions with unions and employees. Strikes and demonstrations have broken out on several occasions, highlighting the challenges of reconciling rapid growth with employee well-being. This Street Press investigation sums up the businessman's strategy.

With the acquisition of major media outlets, Drahi has become one of the main players in the French media landscape. This dominant position has raised concerns about the control he could exert over information. Some subjects seem more delicate to tackle when Patrick Drahi is at the head of a media outlet, as a former editorial director of BFM Business told L'Obs.

In short, despite his undeniable success, Patrick Drahi remains a controversial figure in the business world. His boldness and strategic vision, which have been key to his rise, are also the source of much criticism.

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