By Sophie Sassard and Leila Abboud
LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) - Lazard banker Vincent Le Stradic recently took a break from his job advising Europe's top telecoms companies on deals to help little-known French start-up Sigfox raise 100 million euros.
Not many of his peers would spend months working on a relatively small transaction when big fees were there for the taking from industry leaders such as BT Group (BT.L) and Vodafone (VOD.L) shopping round for acquisitions.
But building relationships with self-made entrepreneurs has been key to the success of a man who has sealed 91 deals worth some $500 billion over the past 18 years. And if that means starting small, the 46-year-old doesn't mind.
"What's so special about Vincent is his authentic passion for his job, which allows him to deploy the same level of focus and energy whether he works on a $10 million deal or a $20 billion deal", said Bernard Mourad, who used to work for Le Stradic at Morgan Stanley.
Sigfox, founded by French entrepreneur Ludovic Le Moan, builds low-cost wireless networks to connect objects such as electricity meters, smart watches and washing machines to the Internet -- providing the infrastructure that makes the so-called Internet of Things possible.
According to Le Stradic, nicknamed the "Petit Breton" for his small stature and origins in the rainy northwest of France, the company has the potential to be the next Facebook (FB.O).
If he's right, Le Moan could be the source of many lucrative deals to come -- just as Le Stradic has benefited from a string of transactions since befriending Egyptian entrepreneur Naguib Sawiris a decade ago and, more recently, Xavier Niel, the billionaire founder of French telecoms firm Iliad (ILD.PA).
"THE MASTER OF OBFUSCATION"
In a banking industry associated with cold reasoning and hard cash, Le Stradic has put personal skills at the heart of his approach.
Disparaged by some competitors as a "carpet seller" who haggles as if in a souk, most still dread facing him. Last year, he played billionaires Patrick Drahi and Martin Bouygues off each other to up their bids for French mobile firm SFR and raised $23 billion for his client Vivendi (VIV.PA).
Le Stradic takes pleasure in calling himself "the master of obfuscation," and his negotiating skills have left even Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim with a bitter taste.
In June 2012, the banker helped Austrian investor Ronny Pecik sell shares in Telekom Austria (TELA.VI) to Slim for 9.5 euros apiece, only for their value to halve in 2013.
Le Stradic's track record is not without failures, though.
Xavier Niel's attempt to buy T-Mobile U.S. (TMUS.N) last year foundered in part because owner Deutsche Telekom (DTEGn.DE) saw the French tycoon's camp, which included Le Stradic, as arrogant and overconfident, people close to the matter said.
Despite his self-confessed wheeler-dealing, many top executives have complete confidence in Le Stradic.
"Vincent is someone with a strong ethical sense so people trust him", said Iliad Chief Financial Officer Thomas Reynaud. "We worked with him even though he had recently advised some of our diehard competitors."
Part of this may be down to dedication. In 2012, Le Stradic interrupted a sailing trip in Sicily on his Scottish Bermudan cutter to help Sawiris on a deal, showing up at a meeting with an Italian CEO in tight trousers and flashy sneakers because they were the only clothes he could buy at the airport.
Having a "good laugh" is always part of working with Le Stradic, say people who know him, while his time at the French Treasury before joining Morgan Stanley (MS.N) in 1996 and Lazard (LAZ.N) in 2002 means he is at ease navigating both the public and private sectors.
That has at times made the engineering graduate from France's prestigious Les Mines school a natural intermediary.
Le Stradic organised several trips to India for Vivendi executive Regis Turrini when the media group was looking at targets there. "We didn't end up doing any deals but we had a really good time," recalled Turrini, who hired Le Stradic for about four deals after 2003.
Le Stradic's diplomatic skills were tested to the limit during the five-year battle for Egypt's largest mobile operator Mobinil that pitted French telecoms firm Orange (ORAN.PA) against Sawiris.
In 2009, both parties called him for help but since he could not choose between two good clients, the banker offered his services as negotiator on a peace deal.
"That was totally surreal," he recalls. "I was literally emailing myself a term sheet I had done with one party in the morning and responding to it with the other party later on in the afternoon!"
As the negotiations dragged on, the family man decided to bring his four children and wife Ines to Egypt to visit the Pyramids while he worked over New Year's Eve.
Another fight soon erupted between Sawiris and Orange and Le Stradic stayed stuck at the hotel while his family went to Giza.
Orange eventually took control of Mobinil in 2012. Both camps paid him a fee and continue working with him -- though Le Stradic has yet to see the Pyramids.
(Corrects spelling of Iliad executive's name in paragraph 15)
(Editing by Mark Potter)