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Outsider Patrick Drahi defies French establishment to win SFR

Patrick Drahi, Franco-Israeli businessman and founder of Numericable, poses during a roadshow for the Israel-based broadcast news channel i2
Patrick Drahi, Franco-Israeli businessman and founder of Numericable, poses during a roadshow for the Israel-based broadcast news channel i2

By Nicholas Vinocur and Leila Abboud

PARIS (Reuters) - When Franco-Israeli telecoms billionaire Patrick Drahi entered the race to acquire Vivendi's SFR , his powerful rivals seemed to suddenly agree on a common goal: keeping him out.

Fellow tycoon Martin Bouygues, whose conglomerate has telecoms to construction holdings in France, mounted a late bid for SFR against Drahi's Numericable and rallied strong connections in the government.

Xavier Niel, founder of low-cost operator Iliad who would benefit if a rival bid from Bouygues succeeded, slammed Drahi for skirting taxes with his company based in Amsterdam and homes in Geneva and Tel Aviv.

On Friday as Vivendi's board prepared to weigh the bids, France's Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg went on morning radio to slam Drahi's bid as too leveraged and bad for France.

Through the three-week takeover battle, Drahi, who came to France from Morocco as a teenager, was not deterred.

On Friday Vivendi picked Drahi's Numericable bid of 11.75 billion euros ($16.36 billion) in cash and additional shares over that of Bouygues. The two sides will undertake three weeks of exclusive talks to finalize the deal.

Working with a handful of lieutenants, who have helped him build an empire of cable and television companies from the Dominican Republic to Belgium, Drahi deliberately kept a low profile. He met with regulators and ministers to explain his plan for SFR, France's second-biggest telecom carrier and employer of 9,000, and ignored the media hubbub.

"Patrick has been working on this project for years," said Numericable executive Jerome Yomtov. "He was very calm."

A person who worked with him for years commended Drahi on the SFR achievement: "This is somebody who is not from the French establishment, who had to have an enormous amount of determination to get where he is now."

FRENCH 'CABLE COWBOY'

Born in Casablanca, Morocco, Drahi moved to southern France at age 15 with his parents who were mathematics teachers. He soon distinguished himself as a science student, and was selected for the elite military university which specialized in math and engineering, the Ecole Polytechnique.

There he rubbed shoulders with old French family scions and donned a military uniform at Bastille Day parades. It was his first exposure to the French establishment whose codes and traditions he eventually learned to master.

His first job was at consumer electronics conglomerate Philips in a lab working on fiber optics, but Drahi soon set out to be an entrepreneur in the nascent cable sector.

With the backing of an American partner, he went town to town in southern France lobbying mayors to convince them to let him dig up their streets to install cable lines to deliver television. He focused on areas left out of France's state cable program and soon built up a patchwork of networks.

Eventually Drahi sold his company to UPC, a U.S. cable giant

owned by his idol billionaire John C. Malone, the so-called "Cable Cowboy" who built up a telecommunications empire in the early 1970s.

He shrewdly asked to be paid in shares of UPC and at age 34 went to Geneva to work for UPC. He settled there with his wife. They have four children, scattered today in Lausanne, Tel Aviv, and Bristol. Drahi gathers them in Geneva each Friday for family dinner.

Just before the dotcom bubble burst, Drahi sold his UPC shares for about 40 million euros and left the company.

In 2001 he created Altice , an Amsterdam-based holding company, and started buying up cable companies in France, Belgium, and Luxembourg, slowly gaining critical mass.

Numericable was born at this time, and eventually grew to become France's biggest cable company with a network covering two-thirds of households.

Drahi brought in private equity funds Carlyle and Cinven to help fund Numericable's development. The company had its ups and downs - saddled with high debts it was slower to upgrade its network to deliver high-speed broadband than cable peers in Germany and Britain and around 2002 faced a torrent of customer complaints for poor service and billing errors.

Once Numericable was back on the rails, Drahi began to hunt for acquisitions in cable outside France. His first buy was a cable company in Israel called HOT. The country soon became a second home for Drahi, who is well-known in business circles and an active philanthropist there. In 2013 he branched into content by founding I24, an international news channel broadcast in English, French and Arabic.

The battle for SFR brought Drahi back to France. He first approached Vivendi about SFR in 2012, but was rebuffed over disagreements about price. He then pursued stock market listings of Numericable and Altice with the aim of making another run at SFR.

At home in France he encountered obstacles he did not face elsewhere. As the pressure mounted in the SFR fight, people close to Drahi acknowledge that the criticism got to him and left him feeling like an outsider.

Bernard Mourad, an investment banker at Morgan Stanley who worked on the Numericable deal, said Drahi told his team to keep their heads down.

"He told us to keep working," said Mourad. "He did not want us to use the methods used by some of our competitors."

($1 = 0.7181 Euros)

(Additional reporting by Tova Cohen; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

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