By Elvira Pollina and Valentina Za
MILAN (Reuters) – News of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s death on Monday sent shares in his family’s MFE-MediaForEurope broadcaster soaring, fitting a pattern of market reaction to updates on his worsening health in recent months.
Rather than a sign of disrespect for the billionaire who made his fortune in commercial television before going into politics, the buoyancy of the shares reflects the options that could open for the company as its founder exits the scene.
MFE, 48% owned by the Berlusconi family’s Fininvest holding, runs commercial TV channels in Italy and Spain and has built a substantial stake in Germany’s ProSieben.
Led by the former PM’s son Pier Silvio Berlusconi, it has pursued European expansion from its Italian roots to try to hold its own against the U.S. streaming giants that take a growing chunk of viewers.
In a fast-changing media landscape, some investors bet that their heirs may be more open to seeking a partner for MFE or selling to a larger rival.
MFE’s second-biggest shareholder, French media group Vivendi, is widely seen in the industry as the main candidate. But a standstill accord the two companies reached in 2021 to settle a years-long legal war prevents Vivendi from raising its 23% stake until 2026.
B-shares in MFE rose as much as 10.3% on Monday and were up 3.7% at 1330 GMT giving it a market capitalisation of 1.6 billion euros.
“When the ownership of a company is in question, investors will first buy and then see what happens,” said Carlo Alberto Carnevale Maffè, Strategy Professor at Milan’s SDA Bocconi management school.
The 86-year-old tycoon never publicly named an heir but people familiar with the matter told Reuters his eldest child, Marina, who already chairs Fininvest, is the most likely to take the reins.
Marina, 56, has led Fininvest’s board since 2005. In addition to MFE, the family holding company also controls the publishing house Mondadori and has a big stake in asset manager Mediolanum.
Shares in Mondadori rose 1.7%.
“Berlusconi may not have laid out succession plans for his party, but he certainly did for his businesses,” Carnevale Maffè said.
Fininvest said in a note on Monday that there would be no changes in the way its businesses are run and a person close to the matter said Berlusconi’s children were united on this.
Before 2005, Marina served as deputy chairperson at Fininvest for nine years.
Described by people who work with her as a tough and demanding boss, Marina was catapulted by her father into corporate life in her early 20s and her influence grew when he was forced to take a hands-off role following his entry into politics in 1994.
Fedele Confalonieri, a lifelong friend of her father and chairman of MediaForEurope, once likened her tough business drive to a “pneumatic drill”.
A mother of two and married to a former La Scala ballet dancer, she has seen her leadership at Fininvest grow in importance over the past decade as her father’s health faded.
In a 2018 television interview, Berlusconi said Marina was the child closest to him and that he consulted daily with her before taking any decision, which he also used to do with his mother before she passed away.
“Silvio put her down to work when she was barely more than a child,” Vittorio Giovanelli, a former director of Berlusconi’s Rete4 TV channel, wrote in a 2003 book, adding he started bringing Marina to business meetings in 1985.
“She listened and took notes for hours, she would never stop.”
Berlusconi has a total of five children from his two ex-wives. Marina and Pier Silvio, born from his first marriage, both have executive roles in the family’s businesses, unlike the remaining three heirs.
He was not legally married to his partner Marta Fascina, though on his deathbed he would call her his wife.
Under Italian law, his children have a right to inherit two-thirds of his wealth in equal parts, while the deceased is free to dispose of the remaining one-third how he pleases.
The way Berlusconi decided to divide up his assets among his heirs will only be known once any will is opened.
The one-third of assets which can be assigned freely can be used to pick a leader for the Fininvest companies provided other assets are sufficient to compensate the others, law professor Emanuele Lucchini Guastalla said.