Billionaire entrepreneur Xavier Niel has launched a tender offer to take private Iliad, the French telecoms company he founded 22 years ago, in a surprise change of strategy for one of France’s richest men.

It is the latest example of buyers taking advantage of the low valuations of listed European telecoms companies. Another French telecoms billionaire, Patrick Drahi, took his Altice Europe group private last year, and in June took a big stake in BT Group. Private equity buyers have also been circling European telecoms companies. Iliad shares have lost a third of their value in the year to date.

Niel already owns roughly 71 per cent of the share capital of Iliad, the mobile and broadband provider that rose to prominence as a price-cutter in France. Iliad, which markets its offers under the brand name Free, has also built a mobile business in Italy from scratch and made its first major acquisition last year when it took over Poland’s Play.

The tender will offer existing shareholders €182 per share, representing about a 50 per cent premium on the average share price over the past month, the company said in a statement.

Iliad shares jumped 61 per cent to €182.10 on Friday morning, giving it a market capitalisation of €10.8bn.

Niel had already boosted his control over Iliad in 2019 when he bought back another chunk of the capital for €120 per share as the shares were stagnating at half their all-time highs.

“From now on, a new phase of development for Iliad will require quicker transformations and significant investments that will be easier to carry out as a private company,” Niel said in a statement. “Our ambition for Iliad is to accelerate to become a leader in telecommunications in Europe.”

Iliad’s board has “welcomed” the offer, the company said, and has set up a committee to review its fairness and terms for minority shareholders.

JPMorgan and Lazard are advising Niel. BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole, and Société Générale will organise the tender offer.