* Bonomi's bid for Club Med trumps French-Chinese offer
* Club Med CEO prefers offer with French participation
* Bonomi seeking comeback after Italian bank plan failed
By Lisa Jucca and Dominique Vidalon
MILAN/PARIS, July 4 (Reuters) - Late on May 23, Italian financier Andrea Bonomi phoned executives at his country's two largest banks seeking more than 200 million euros ($273 million) in loans to help him bid for French holiday resort company Club Mediterranee.
For the 48-year-old businessman, taking over Club Med, a storied brand struggling to improve profitability, would be the biggest challenge since he revived the fortunes of motorcycle maker Ducati in the mid-2000s.
It would also provide redemption from what Bonomi has described as his personal Vietnam: failing earlier in the year in an ambitious revamp of Italy's Banca Popolare di Milano , a wealthy lender that needed restructuring after running into legal difficulties.
"The response from the Italian banks was overwhelmingly positive," Bonomi told Reuters this week about his loan request.
Over the same weekend, he mustered the support of three investors with expertise in the tourism sector and put together a team of 18 ready to comb through Club Med's books.
Five weeks later, Bonomi unveiled a 21 euro-a-share takeover offer for Club Med, which is best known for pioneering all-inclusive holiday resorts, outbidding a rival offer at 17.50 euros by French private equity firm Ardian and Chinese group Fosun International.
The June 30 offer, through Bonomi's Investindustrial private equity fund, values the whole of Club Med at 790 million euros. It will be financed through a 240 million euro loan equally split between UniCredit and Intesa, and Bonomi's own cash.
Now a harder phase starts: Bonomi must convince Club Med shareholders and the French establishment.
Paris has a long and largely-successful history of protecting local companies from foreign takeovers.
The most recent example: earlier this year Paris intervened in the sale of French engineering group Alstom, only agreeing to let U.S. conglomerate General Electric seal a deal after securing an option to buy 20 percent of the company.
Bonomi has tried to preempt possible objections by promising big investments in Club Med's French resorts. "One must not forget France," he told reporters at a Paris news conference.
But on Friday, Club Med Chairman and Chief Executive Henri Giscard d'Estaing fired the first salvo in the patriotic battle. In an interview with French daily Le Figaro, he said he supported the French-Chinese offer for Club Med.
The bid by Ardian and Fosun is "a strict balance between a French and a Chinese shareholder...(Bonomi's) Global Resorts ... wants sole control of the Club which would be exclusively in international hands," he said.
Bonomi has business in his blood. He is the grandson of Italy's best-known female entrepreneur, Anna Bonomi Bolchini, who built a construction empire and an impressive portfolio of other investments in post-War Italy.
Born in New York, Bonomi studied in France, Britain and the United States and currently lives in Lugano, Switzerland. After a stint in the private sector, in 1990 he founded a fund called Investindustrial, which now has some 3 billion euros in assets.
The financier and father of three says he targets firms with governance and execution problems. He tries to get full management control, with a 7-10 year horizon for returns.
In 2012, he nearly trebled his investment of six years by selling a rejuvenated Ducati to Volkswagen 's Audi for 860 million euros. That year, he also took a major stake in Aston Martin, the maker of James Bond cars. Then in 2013, he sold half of Spanish theme park PortAventura to private equity firm KKR for twice the acquiring price.
Yet Bonomi was not as successful with Banca Popolare di Milano. He began to buy stock in the bank in 2011 because of the lender's low valuations and wealthy Milan clientele. With early support of local unions, he took control of the management board and then tried to turn the lender into a joint-stock company - a plan he thought would improve profitability.
But the by-laws of the bank give shareholders at Banca Popolare di Milano one vote each regardless of the number of shares owned. The result was that Bonomi was ultimately unable to sway small shareholders and bank employees to his plan. He ended up selling his 8.6 percent stake, pocketing a capital gain but missing out on the subsequent rally in Italian bank stocks.
"Revamping a financial services company is very different than an industrial restructuring," Bonomi said in his interview with Reuters.
A person who has known Bonomi for years said Club Med was a fresh start for him. "After the problems at Popolare di Milano, he needs a high-profile, successful deal," the person said.
In the interview, Bonomi said he considered Club Med an attractive brand in need of a clearer strategy. Club Med has in recent years been trying to reposition itself more upmarket, including with five-star versions of its resorts. Bonomi said Club Med should be careful not to shun cheaper resorts that have traditionally been popular with middle-class families.
Club Med has had a roller-coaster financial performance recently, struggling to eek out profits earlier this decade and then losing 9 million euros in 2013 as it closed several resorts. If he prevails, Bonomi would replace current management at Club Med, but would still choose a French manager to run it, according to another person close to the Italian financier.
Though Bonomi started buying shares in Club Med in March, he wasn't originally planning a full bid. But on May 23, the day the Ardian-Fosun bid was due to expire, France's stock market regulator asked Bonomi to make clear his plans by May 26.
That left him with 72 hours to see if he had the financial heft to pull off a takeover. After UniCredit and Intesa's initial backing, the two banks on June 25 committed to help finance a deal, according to people familiar with the offer.
In the interview with Reuters, Bonomi acknowledged that taking over a French company could pose challenges to a foreign investor. But he noted that tourism was not a strategic sector and hoped shareholders would appreciate an offer based on a solid business plan regardless of the nationality.
"Investing in a national icon like Club Med is possible ... if you do it with responsibility and respect," he said.
($1 = 0.7331 Euros) (Editing by Alessandra Galloni and Mark Potter)
- Investment & Company Information
- Club Med
- Andrea Bonomi
- Banca Popolare di Milano