ARNAULT SAID TO BE PLANNING EUROP@WEB IPO

PARIS — Ever since Bernard Arnault announced last July the creation of Europ@Web, his $500 million Internet investment vehicle, he suggested that it would one day seek an initial public offering. Now, it’s official.
Europ@Web could complete an IPO by yearend, according to a source close to Arnault.
The source said it was too early to elaborate on the particulars of the probable stock market transaction.
Europ@Web, the Internet investment arm of Arnault family holding company Groupe Arnault, has been extremely aggressive snapping up stakes in wide-ranging Internet companies. According to managing director Chahram Becharat, by mid-January, about half of the $500 million in initial funds had been spent on investments ranging from the about-to-go-public Liberty Surf, a free access provider; Aucland.com, a European online auction site; Moonfruit.com, a Web site offering the possibility to build online communities; Alafolie.com, the first European site to specialize in wedding planning; and WineandCo.com, an online wine retailer.
Europ@Web’s other Internet investments include style-driven Boo.com and Ashford.com, as well as Oxygen Media, comprising a women’s content and commerce site, and a cable TV channel launched last month. It also holds stakes in a number of large, publicly held Net players, including eBay, Cisco and Excite@home.
Europ@Web, however, is not just an investor, it will also be a site operator.
The fund has teamed up with Franco-Belgian bank Dexia to develop Ze Project, a retail financial portal that will act as a liaison between Internet users and providers of financial services and products. It should soon be fully operational under its new name, Ze Banque. Dexia owns 20 percent of Ze Banque with Europ@Web holding the remainder. Plans for Ze Banque include a public offering, according to the Arnault source, but no time frame has been established.
Luxury tycoon Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, is one of Europe’s most aggressive internauts. He invests in the Internet directly via Groupe Arnault, and the areas of investment vary widely. A recent transaction was the minority stake taken in Cyro Networks, a maker of Web site development software and developer of online virtual game communities. Groupe Arnault also recently joined forces with French utility giant Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux in a consortium that is bidding to install and operate wireless local loop networks.
Arnault’s other recent Internet initiatives through LVMH include going public this year with the upscale beauty site Sephora.com, and launching a Web site, eluxury.com, this spring, offering a broad array of goods and services aimed at consumers living in the 25 percent of households with the highest annual incomes.

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