Wendel: “We hear the needs for freedom of certain family shareholders”

In her first interview, Priscilla de Moustier, president of the Wendel family holding company, announces an unprecedented takeover operation reserved for the 1,170 shareholder members of the family.

Priscilla de Moustier, President of Wendel Participations: “I am not saying, we have been there for 315 years and we will be there in 315 years.  My deadline is the next generation.

You have been chairing the future of the Wendel family holding company for a year. Are you satisfied with the new governance since the tensions that arose with the previous management board?

As Chairman of Wendel Participations and member of the Supervisory Board of Wendel, I am delighted with the quality of the relationship with André François-Poncet and Bernard Gautier. We split the chairmanship of Wendel Participations from that of the supervisory board of Wendel provided by Nicolas ver Hulst, which is a very healthy thing to which we were very keen. This governance allows for a very open dialogue. We are satisfied with the work of the management board, which has initiated a major simplification of Wendel. In the space of just 18 months, the number of our participations went from 13 to 7, which is not negligible!

Isn’t that reducing Wendel’s hold?

On the contrary. The small companies that Wendel sold had their rationality in their time, but they were too numerous and mobilized as much operational monitoring as our large holdings. A reduction in their number was necessary. It must also be said that we took advantage of excellent conditions, with very high valuations.

Wendel is criticized for not having carried out a significant acquisition?

It is precisely the strength of the Wendel model which invests on its own balance sheet and is therefore not obliged to do so at all costs in a market where prices are at their peak. We have significant resources and our net debt is almost zero given our cash flow. Wendel is in a strong position to face all market circumstances.

Is Wendel Participations becoming a “family office”?

This is absolutely not our intention. A “family office” obeys a purely financial investment objective. Wendel is a long-term investor in industrial and service holdings with a strong influence. There is no question of transforming Wendel Participations into an Anglo-Saxon “family office” serving its shareholders in their daily tasks …

Does it still make sense to keep Wendel listed? Benjamin de Rothschild’s family set an example by removing their bank from the Stock Exchange.

This is a question we ask ourselves from time to time. But we have always ruled in the negative. Staying listed is the way to significantly increase our investment capabilities. Getting out of it would force us to reduce our ambitions. The Stock Exchange also forces you to be transparent, and to respect high standards in terms of governance, which is very healthy.

Doesn’t dividing the portfolio by half while remaining listed alter the direct link with the family?

The “affectio societatis” is a subject of constant attention for us. The Wendels have become the largest family of French shareholders, with some 1,170 members. When my father, Pierre Celier, relaunched Wendel after the nationalization of the steel industry in the 1970s, we had no more than 360… There is a mechanical risk of weakening the link with the investment company Wendel. But we have the means to enrich it. We participate in events where the leaders of our holdings intervene, like Steve Jones, the boss of security giant Allied Universal. The size of his group has quadrupled since our entry, that’s pretty evocative!

How to keep the younger generations on board?

We empower the younger generations on our board and we encourage 25- to 40-year-olds to promote their own vision of Wendel. But we also hear the freedom needs of a number of family shareholders today. Wendel holdings can be seen as a golden prison. We have also just offered them an operation that meets their need for liquidity.

What will it consist of?

First of all, this is a limited operation with no impact on the control of Wendel. The idea is to use the increase in our participation created by the share buybacks carried out by the company Wendel in recent years to finance it. We estimate that we could use up to 4% of Wendel’s capital to offer liquidity on attractive terms to interested family shareholders, without losing our position as benchmark shareholder.

Are you not taking the risk of weakening the bond between Wendel and the family a little more?

Make no mistake about this decision. It meets the needs expressed by a certain number of our family shareholders aimed at financing personal projects. Basically I say to them: “if you do not have an absolute necessity to resort to it, let us continue to carry out the Wendel project together”. We will also be announcing other initiatives aimed at making life easier for our shareholders in terms of project financing.

When was the last time you took this initiative?

Such a decision has not been made since my father revived Wendel. At the time, he had already said that he would not start without the full support of all the members of the family. They then had the possibility of receiving a sum directly in cash and another in shares. They supported him. They all accepted the project.

What do you promise to family shareholders?

I’m not telling them, we’ve been there 315 years and we’ll be there 315 years from now. My deadline is the next generation. We will continue to grow, for sure, but evolving as we always have. We employ 300,000 employees through our participations and we have a power of impact that we would not have if we were dispersed.