Jean-Luc Lagardere, who built a French defense firm into the holding company that publishes Elle magazine and launches media satellites, died Friday in Paris. He was 75.
Lagardere, who died of a rare disease of the nervous system, became ill after undergoing hip surgery in February, said a spokesman for the company.
One of France's best-known businessmen, Lagardere helped bring together the French and German companies that formed European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co. (EADS), Europe's largest aerospace company. Until his death, he remained chairman of Lagardere SCA and was co-chairman of EADS' board.
"He was a great entrepreneur, the kind we haven't seen many of in the last half-century," said Elie Cohen, director of research at the French think tank National Center for Scientific Research. "He leaves a significant mark on French industry."
Lagardere, who also bred racehorses, started moving away from day-to-day business when he put his son Arnaud, 41, on the board in 2001. The son is expected to succeed his father when company plans are announced Monday.
Born in southwest France in February 1928, Lagardere didn't attend the country's elite schools, instead graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from a technical university.
He started his career in 1952 as an engineer at Avions Marcel Dassault, the maker of Mirage fighter jets.
After rising to project leader, he left the company in 1963 to head Matra, another airplane maker. The departure began a lifelong rivalry with Dassault founder Serge Dassault, who later followed Lagardere into the media business.
"It's a big loss," Dassault told French television LCI.
Betting that France's military budgets would shrink as the country extricated itself from a generation of colonial wars in the early 1970s, Lagardere developed Matra toward space exploration equipment and automotive assembly and design. His company built the Espace minivans for Renault SA until last year.
Lagardere bought Hachette, a French publisher, in 1981 amid fears that the new socialist government would nationalize Matra. He introduced foreign-language versions of Elle and bought magazines in the U.S. to make the company more international. Among his other publications are Car and Driver and French photo magazine Paris Match.
A failed attempt by Hachette to break into television broadcasting in the early 1990s forced Lagardere to combine the publisher with the cash-rich Matra in 1993.
"It was fabulous how this man had some corporate setbacks at certain times and was always able to rebound, and often rebound even higher," Cohen said.
Lagardere bred and owned thoroughbreds. In 1998, his horse Sagamix won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, France's most prestigious race. "Racing, like life, requires teamwork," he said after the victory.
The many-faceted businessman was also president of France Galop, which runs the country's six major racetracks, and under his leadership Matra developed an engine for Formula 1 race cars.
Lagardere brought about the formation of EADS in 1999 by persuading the French government to let him combine Matra with Aerospatiale, a state-owned maker of airplanes, missiles and rockets. He then engineered the merger of Aerospatiale-Matra with DaimlerChrysler AG's Dasa unit and Spain's Casa to form Europe's No. 1 aerospace company in 2000.
"EADS might not exist today if it wasn't for him," said Richard Aboulafia, vice president at Teal Group, an aviation consulting firm based in Fairfax, Va. "It was Lagardere who pushed openness, and brought reform" to the French aerospace community.
Philippe Camus and Rainer Hertrich, the co-chief executives of European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co., credited Lagardere with helping to create the A380 passenger plane.
When the 550-seat plane enters commercial service in 2006, it will be the largest passenger plane, and will end Boeing Co.'s 30-year monopoly on very large aircraft.
While Lagardere focused on building the defense business, his son led the company's efforts to expand in media.
The company bought Virgin Group Ltd.'s Megastores, which sell music and books, in France, doubling its retail outlets. It also made acquisitions to become France's second-largest radio broadcaster and started pushing into television production with cable channels such as Match TV.
In October, Lagardere agreed to buy European and Latin American publishers from Vivendi Universal SA, making his company France's top book publisher.