Tarak Ben Ammar: The Great Negotiator
By Dom Serafini
Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi, Prince Alwaleed, Leo Kirch and Vincent
Bolloré have a common denominator, that could only be Franco-Tunisian
financier-producer-broker-financial advisor Tarak Ben Ammar.
the 54-year old Ben Ammar is more than just that: he’s also a shareholder
of Lux Vide, Italy’s largest TV production house; chairman of Paris-based
Quinta Communications; owner of production facilities in his native
Tunisia, as well as post-production and special effects houses in France;
and now a board member of Mediobanca, Italy’s largest investment bank,
which also controls Assicurazione Generali, Europe’s largest insurance
company. Ben Ammar also has a 50.1 percent equity share in Roma Studios
through his Promòtion e Partècipation International.
As VideoAge Daily at MIPCOM 2003 wrote: “One doesn’t need to qualify
Tarak Ben Ammar, only to quantify him.”
For this story, VideoAge met with Ben Ammar first at the Anti-Defamation
League’s Award Ceremony honoring Silvio Berlusconi in New York, then at the MIPCOM
2003 “Personality of the Year” Award dinner for News Corp. COO Peter
Chernin, and finally on his boat, moored in the port of Cannes’ MIPCOM Palais.
Ben Ammar’s ascent in the entertainment industry began in the movies: through
his studios, Carthago Films, in Hammamet, Tunisia, he has been involved in a
total of 60 film productions, including 1977’s Star Wars, 1981’s Raiders
of the Lost Ark and, most recently, Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale.
But he did not neglect financing, and today Ben Ammar is working on a venture
called Global Partners, a mergers investment bank, in partnership with ABN Ambro,
the Netherlands’s largest bank.
the Netherlands, Ben Ammar also owns Holland Coordinator & Services
(HC&S), a holding company now involved in brokering the two Italian
national TV terrestrial frequencies that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
inherited (but, by law, has soon to dispose) by acquiring Vivendi-Universal’s
Telepiú. This pay-TV service was renamed Sky Italia when it was
merged with Italian pay-TV service Stream. The two frequencies, called
Telepiú Bianco and Telepiú Nero, were first grouped under
two companies: Europa TV for the former and Prima TV for the latter.
Subsequently, News Corp. sold them to SPAFID, a trust company owned by
Mediobanca. Now HC&S is acquiring Europa TV for 70 million euro and
Prima TV for 40 million euro. The French TF1 group is to buy up 49 percent
of Europa TV for 40 million euro. TF1, through its wholly-owned subsidiary
Eurosport, plans to launch Sport Italia, a national, not- soccer-based
sports channel covering 83 percent of Italy. If the agreements get official
approval, the partners plan to launch in time for the New Year on an
unscrambled basis. Prima TV, on the other hand, would become a multiplex
for digital terrestrial television whose programs will be farmed out.
Ben Ammar first negotiated News Corp.’s 48 million euro control of
Stream from Telecom Italia. Later, he helped with Murdoch’s 920 million
euro (cash and debt) acquisition of Telepiú.
Ben Ammar first came into contact with Murdoch in 1995 when News Corp.’s chairman
wanted to buy Silvio Berlusconi’s media group, Mediaset. Conversely, Ben Ammar
has known Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi since 1983, when he met him at the
Tunisian vacation house of a mutual friend: the then-Italian Prime Minister Bettino
Craxi was subsequently discredited and vilified, but before that, he was instrumental
in forging legislature that allowed Berlusconi to build his national TV network
Canale 5 and to expand his TV operations in Italy. Craxi’s demise induced Berlusconi
to enter national politics in 1993 in order to protect his interests from threatening,
politically well-connected competitors.
In 1990, Berlusconi and Ben Ammar formed Quinta Communications, a production
and distribution company which, starting in 1994, co-produced with Lux Vide such
TV series as Jesus of Nazareth and The Bible. Last September, Ben
Ammar became a Lux Vide shareholder, with a 25 percent stake.
In 1995, Ben Ammar advised Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to invest in Berlusconi’s
Mediaset when it went public, and was rewarded with a seat on the Italian media
conglomerate’s board, a position that he left recently when Alwaleed shed his
Mediaset investment. Similarly, Ben Ammar advised Alwaleed to invest $400 million
in Murdoch’s News Corp. in 1997.
Prince Alwaleed, who is also Citigroup’s largest individual investor and owns
a big chunk of Euro Disney, is a family friend of Ben Ammar’s. Both men completed
their studies in the U.S.: Ben Ammar at Georgetown University in Washington,
D.C., and Alwaleed at Menlo College in California.
Since 1995, Ben Ammar has overseen media investments on behalf of
Prince Alwaleed’s Kingdom Holding Co. Earlier, in 1993, in association
with Alwaleed and Saudi Group Dallah Al Baraka, controlled by Sheikh
Salah Abdallah Kamel, Ben Ammar helped to establish Arab Radio & Television
(ART), which satcasts in the Middle East and North Africa with uplinking
facilities in Italy. In 1995 he assisted Italian broadcaster RAI
in establishing RAI International’s satcasts via Echostar in North
America and Galaxy in South America in association with Alwaleed
and Dallah Al Baraka.
In 1999, Ben Ammar arranged for Berlusconi, Alwaleed and Lehman Brothers to invest
$1.3 billion in Kirch Media and for Murdoch’s B-Sky B to invest $1.4 billion
in Kirch’s pay-TV Premiere in Germany. His relationship with Kirch began in 1978,
when he produced Franco Zeffirelli’s La Traviata for him. In 1995, he
assisted Kirch in investing, together with Alwaleed and the South African group
Nethold, some $1 billion in Berlusconi’s Mediaset.
Ben Ammar told VideoAge that he’s especially proud of his recent appointment
to the board of Mediobanca, since, as he put it, “It’s the first time that
a film and TV executive has been asked to be part of Italy’s financial center.
It’s also a first time for a non-Westerner.”
The post is to represent the interests of Vincent Bolloré, a French investor
and Ben Ammar’s neighbor in Paris, who had to mount an offensive to protect his
investment in Mediobanca, and especially in Assicurazione Generali, against a
challenge from Italian shareholders (mostly banks) and thus preserve the job
of his friend at Generali, chairman Antoine Bernheim, who’s also a Bolloré business
All in all, Ben Ammar’s negotiating skills have netted him an estimated $100
million in connection with transactions on the order of 13 billion euro. Not
bad for someone who, in 1975, started with $10,000 to build a production services
company outside Tunis.
The son of a Muslim father and a Catholic mother of Corsican descent, Ben Ammar
was raised Muslim, but when his lawyer father became Tunisia’s Ambassador to
Italy, he attended an American Catholic school in Rome. Ben Ammar’s grandfather,
also a lawyer, was the father-in-law of Habib Bourghiba, the revolutionary leader
who, in 1956, became the first president of a Tunisia independent from the French
colonialists. Later, as a Tunisian government official, Ben Ammar’s father moved
with his family to France and Germany, so, in addition to Arabic, Tarak now speaks
four other languages fluently. He’s married to a Catholic Pole and they live
in Paris with their four children.