French billionaire amasses 18% stake in U.K. telecoms giant B.T., fueling takeover fears

French billionaire amasses 18% stake in U.K. telecoms giant B.T.

December 15, 2021: -French billionaire Patrick Drahi has increased his stake in British telecommunications company B.T., sparking a response from the U.K. government amid fears for a full-blown takeover.

B.T. said its board was notified that Altice, Drahi’s telecoms group, had increased its ownership of B.T. to 18% from 12.1%.

“The Board and management of B.T. Group will continue to operate the business in the interest of all shareholders and remains focused on the successful execution of its strategy and building on the latest performance momentum,” B.T. said in a statement Tuesday.

Tracing its origins back to founding the world’s first public telegraph company in 1846, B.T. is an iconic company in U.K. corporate history. The firm was state-owned but was privatized by the 20th century.

In recent years, B.T. has struggled to convince investors of its vision to upgrade national network infrastructure, becoming a key player in the next-generation 5G mobile internet. Shares of the £16.3 billion firm have been down around 55% in the previous five years.

Drahi was born in Morocco but emigrated to France as a teenager, according to Forbes, founded Altice in 2001.

In June, he stunned the telecoms world when his firm paid £2.2 billion for a 12.1% stake in B.T. His interest in B.T. has fueled concern of a total potential takeover of the company.

The entrepreneur is prevented from pursuing further equity ownership of B.T. until December 11 because of the U.K. takeover rules. On Tuesday, Altice said it doesn’t intend to acquire B.T., but this could change under a particular set of circumstances, which include if a third party made an offer.

In a statement, Drahi said his firm has “engaged constructively” with B.T.’s board and management and “look forward to continuing that dialogue.”

“We continue to hold them in the great regard and remain supportive of their strategy, principally to play the pivotal role in delivering the expansion of access to a full-fiber broadband network,” Drahi said.

News of Drahi boosting his stake in B.T. provoked U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government Tuesday. In a brief statement, a spokesperson for the government said it was “monitoring the situation carefully.”

“The Government is committed to leveling up the country through digital infrastructure and will not hesitate to act if required to protect our critical national telecoms infrastructure,” the spokesperson said.

The U.K. is ready to put new laws in Jan. 2022, giving it powers to intervene in acquisitions that increase national security concerns.

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