Prior to Monday morning’s blockbuster news that Sotheby’s is being bought in a deal valued at $3.7 billion and going private after 31 years on the New York Stock Exchange, many in the art world had never heard the name Patrick Drahi before. The billionaire media mogul behind the purchase of the 275-year-old auction house will soon become a very familiar figure in the art world. But veteran auction house executive-turned private dealer Brett Gorvy seemed to speak for many when told the New York Times on Monday: “Most people don’t seem to know who he is.”
So just who is Drahi? And what are his plans for the venerable auction house? Here is a breakdown of what we know so far—and what still remains a mystery.
How old is he? 55 years old.
Where was he born? Casablanca, Morocco.
What is his family background? Drahi is the son of two math teachers. He is married and has four children. According to reports, he proposed to his wife within an hour of meeting her, at a college party in the late 1980s. In 2014, Haaretz reported the hard-to-believe fact that, despite the children being located in Lausanne, Tel Aviv, and Bristol, Drahi gathered them in Geneva each Friday for family dinner.
Where is he primarily based? Zermatt, Switzerland.
Citizenship? French, Portuguese, and Israeli. (Yes, all three.)
How rich is he? Drahi ranks 190th on the 2019 Forbes list of billionaires, with an estimated net worth of $9.4 billion.
Where was he educated? At age 15, Drahi moved with his parents to the south of France. He graduated from the École Polytechnique, a highly selective university focused on science and engineering, before moving on to the École Nationale Supérieure de Télécommunications, where he earned a post-graduate degree in optics and electronics.
Has he always been a member of high society? Remember the part about his parents being math teachers? Drahi appears to be a self-made man who largely earned his current status among the world’s elite through talent, intelligence, and grit.
What is he best known for? Founding telecommunications firm Altice in 2001 in Europe, and over the course of nearly 20 years, aggressively acquiring competitors to build an empire spanning much of the the world. Altice is now a multinational broadband, telecommunications, media, digital, and advertising company. Drahi holds 60 percent of the stock.
Aside from Sotheby’s, what are his biggest acquisitions? He “stormed” the US in 2015 by buying a 70 percent stake in cable operator Suddenlink for $9 billion and Cablevision for $17.7 billion. Those US entities were spun off into Altice USA, which attracted $1.9 billion in investment when it went public in June 2017. Today, he still owns about 38 percent of Altice USA.
Is Sotheby’s his only acquisition this year? Negative. In April 2019, he struck a $200 million deal to acquire Cheddar, an online-only financial news network targeted at millennials.
How is Drahi connected to the art world? He’s said to be a collector of Impressionist and modern artworks, typically priced under $5 million. French online art sales database Artprice reportedly lists him as the 252nd biggest art collector worldwide. And Artprice CEO Thierry Ehrmann supplied this contradictory tidbit to AFP: “He’s a very secretive, elitist art collector… he is particularly fond of contemporary art” but also has some “fairly spectacular” works by the 20th-century Belarussian-French artist Marc Chagall.
More details on his rise, please? OK! Drahi began his professional career with the Philips Group in 1988 where he was in charge of international marketing in the cable and satellite division. In 1991, he joined the US/Scandinavian group Kinnevik-Millisat, where he was in charge of the development of private cable networks in Spain and France and was involved in the launch of commercial TV stations in eastern Europe. In 1993, Drahi founded CMA, a consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and media, which was awarded a mandate from BCTV for the implementation of Beijing’s full-service cable network.
Not long after, he founded two cable companies in France, Sud Câble Services (1994) and Médiaréseaux (1995). When Médiaréseaux was taken over by UPC (which then became Liberty Global) at the end of 1999, Drahi led its activities for southern Europe before deciding to create Altice in 2001.
What business strategies is he known for? Using major leverage to buy undervalued assets, then aggressively cutting costs. According to Leaders League, which bills itself as a “media and ratings agency for top executives at an international level,” Drahi leaves “no stone unturned” when it comes to reducing expenditures at his companies. Soon after he acquired French telecom firm SFR, its employees supposedly began decrying shortages of paper in the photocopiers and toilet paper in the restrooms. The site also claims that Drahi created Altice’s original logo himself to save the cost of hiring a graphic designer. French unions, meanwhile, reportedly refer to Drahi simply as “the cost killer.”
Oh, brother. Does he slice and dice jobs, too? Drahi has a mixed record on this front. After Altice swallowed SFR in 2014, a representative publicly proclaimed that SFR would suffer no major layoffs for three years. Drahi abided by that statement of purpose, but severed 5,000 jobs, or about one-third of SFR’s workforce, shortly after the self-imposed deadline ended.
The Dolan family, the American telecom moguls from whom Drahi acquired Cablevision and a consortium of local TV stations collectively known as News 12, also sued Altice USA in September 2018 for allegedly violating a clause in the sale agreement protecting hundreds of News 12 staffers through 2020. Although a judge implored the parties to settle out of court in April 2019, the suit remained active as of publication time.
Any personal scandals we should know about? Either Drahi’s team has buried them all deeper than nuclear waste, or he’s something approaching a model citizen. The closest thing to a personal controversy arose when he tried to acquire SFR from Vivendi in 2014. Haaretz reports that Drahi’s telecom rivals and their political allies tried to block the sale in part by smearing their opponent, accusing Drahi of evading French taxes via his Amsterdam-based conglomerate and his homes in Geneva and Tel Aviv, as well as for constructing a bid for SFR that was so debt-ridden it would be “bad for France.” Drahi won anyway.
Does he have a record as a philanthropist? Established in Switzerland in 2014, the Patrick and Lina Drahi Foundation has donated tens of millions of euros to social programs and science, math, and arts education across Europe. Drahi has been especially generous to his own former schools. In 2014, he donated €10 million to L’Institut Mines Telecom, an educational cooperative made by combining the École Nationale Supérieure de Télécommunications with two other leading French telecom universities. He also gifted €7 million to the École Polytechnique in 2015 to found an innovation and entrepreneurship center, as well as develop massive open online courses (known as MOOCs). Leaders League references sizable donations to “a Franco-Israeli high school and a brain research institute in Jerusalem,” too.
What has Drahi said about buying Sotheby’s? “I am very honored that the Board of Sotheby’s has decided to recommend my offer. With my family, we are very enthusiastic to build together with its current management and their teams the future of Sotheby’s, a fascinating and multi-secular company with such a celebrated history of uniting people all over the world through culture and arts. For my entire life, I have been passionate about this industry and I believe the opportunities and growth potential are significant for Sotheby’s.”
Why did he buy Sotheby’s? So far, the leading theory is the “trophy buyer” thesis, says Consumer Edge Research analyst Raymond Stochel—the notion that Drahi purchased the company as a symbol of status, power, and access, rather than as a strictly money-making venture.
What do people say about Drahi? “Drahi is one of the most well-regarded entrepreneurs in the world,” Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith said in a statement. “Known for his commitment to innovation and ingenuity, Patrick founded and leads some of the most successful telecommunications, media, and digital companies in the world. He has a long-term view and shares our brand vision for great client service and employing innovation to enhance the value of the company for clients and employees. This acquisition will provide Sotheby’s with the opportunity to accelerate the successful program of growth initiatives of the past several years in a more flexible private environment. It positions us very well for our future and I strongly believe that the company will be in excellent hands for decades to come with Patrick as our owner.”
A person who worked with him for years commended Drahi on the SFR achievement in Haaretz: “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 press, meanwhile, has accused Drahi of having “acquisition bulimia.”
What remains a mystery? How Drahi might apply his (in)famous cost-cutting practices to Sotheby’s, particularly when it comes to its current executives. He has publicly expressed confidence in Sotheby’s leadership, a good sign for Smith (to whom Drahi is linked through Cablevision, where Smith once played a prominent role). Others have speculated that Drahi might be especially interested in Sotheby’s moves toward data analysis (see: its acquisition of the Mei Moses index and artificial intelligence startup ThreadGenius) and content production.
For now, though, we have little more choice than to wait and see what happens next.
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