tuesday, 18 september of 2012

Bruce Willis thirsts for vodka justice

Actor tries to get paycheck

Bruce Willis thirsts for Belvédère vodka justice

Three years after lending his image to promote Sobieski vodka in the U.S., actor Bruce Willis is trying to get his paycheck.

Representatives of Mr. Willis will meet in Paris on Tuesday with other creditors of French liquor company Belvédère SA, owner of the Sobieski brand, to decide how to restructure the firm's debt of €744 million ($976.9 million).

At issue for Mr. Willis is €20 million that he was promised in the event that the value of his original compensation—a 2.6% stake in Belvédère—fell beneath a certain threshold.

Under the proposed debt-rescheduling arrangement that will be submitted to bondholders, suppliers and banks, Mr. Willis may recover part of the €20 million Belvédère promised to pay him for endorsing Sobieski in the U.S., according to a court-appointed administrator of the troubled company. But Mr. Willis is almost certain to lose most of the 2.6% he owns in Belvédère, said Frédéric Abitbol, the administrator.

Belvédère, which recorded a net loss of €54.8 million on revenue of €911 million last year, said it wasn't able to pay the €20 million it owed Mr. Willis after its share price fell. The company declined to say what price triggered the lump-sum payment clause.

A Paris-based lawyer for Mr. Willis, Stéphanie Chatelon, said the actor wouldn't comment on his role in Belvédère.

Belvédère says it has been delighted with the performance of Mr. Willis, who worked as a bartender before starting a career on stage and screen.

The actor began endorsing Sobieski, a Polish brand of vodka, in 2009, appearing in dozens of tongue-in-cheek television commercials and at promotional parties. He also appeared in black-and-white newspaper ads in which he was quoted saying: "I am very selective about what products I choose to associate myself with."

The campaign paid off. Belvédère says Sobieski sales in the U.S. soared to one million nine-liter cases in 2010, from 70,000 cases in 2008.

"He has done a huge job," Belvédère Chief Executive Krzysztof Trylinski said. "To get such a result, you can either spend in marketing for 35 years or hire a star: It is much faster and eventually cheaper."

But while Sobieski prospered, Belvédère, which had already filed for creditor protection when Mr. Willis got involved, struggled with a huge debt pile stemming from the ill-timed acquisition of larger French rival Marie Brizard & Roger International in 2006.

In Paris trading Monday, Belvédère shares finished at €56.66, down 2.3%.

Under the proposed debt-rescheduling arrangement, Mr. Willis will be offered the choice of receiving a third of €20 million now or spread payment of the amount over seven years, Mr. Abitbol said.

Bondholders, for their part, could get as much as 87% of the company if they agree to forgo €574 million in bonds, potentially diluting Mr. Willis's stake to an infinitesimal amount.

Celebrity endorsement of liquor brands isn't unusual, although a star lending a name or face for an equity stake is less common. Music mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs for a number of years has had a partnership with Diageo PLC's high-end vodka brand Ciroc, under which he shares in the sales.

The Belvédère CEO said he wasn't sure Mr. Willis would attend Tuesday's gathering of creditors in person.

"I think he will send lawyers," Mr. Trylinski said. "But it will be a nice surprise if he comes."

(Published by WSJ - September 17, 2012)

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