ANALYSIS-UniCredit strategies under threat with CEO's exitReuters, September 23, 2010
* Italy cost-cutting could be threatened with CEO exit
* Eastern, central European assets might be target
* CEO exit likely to mean more focus on Italy
* Shares down 3 percent, twice the sector loss
By Ian Simpson
MILAN, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Italy's biggest bank UniCredit SpA is adrift and its strategy at risk from political interference after the resignation of its high-flying chief executive in a power clash with shareholders.
The departure of Alessandro Profumo, Europe's longest-serving bank CEO, means UniCredit is rudderless as it struggles to recover from the financial crisis and make a success of a string of acquisitions, analysts and fund managers said on Wednesday.
His exit under fire from politically linked shareholder foundations raises the prospect that UniCredit, previously seen as Italy's least politicised bank, could face more interference from local power brokers, thus damaging its appeal to investors, they said.
"If the market were to have the feeling that the bank has political pressure at its back, I think the market would take it negatively," said Alessandro Frigerio, a fund manager with RMJ Sgr in Milan.
Shares in UniCredit were down 3 percent at 1.842 euros at 1215 GMT, twice the downturn in the STOXX Europe 600 banking index.
A FIRST CASUALTY
With Profumo gone, a first casualty could be Profumo's Banca Unica plan to streamline Italian operations by folding seven regional banks into its main unit.
Banca Unica angered the foundations, many of whose board members are appointed by local political leaders, since it would cut 4,700 jobs at a saving of 300 million euros. Profumo designed it to help revive UniCredit's lagging performance as Italy recovers from its worst recession since World War Two.
"Whether Banca Unica is still on track, whether the synergies will still come through, that is another point of debate," said a London-based analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Deputy Chief Executive Roberto Nicastro, the head of UniCredit's retail operations, said Banca Unica remained "highly strategic" for the bank.
"Banca Unica is going ahead at maximum speed and acceleration," he told reporters at a meeting of the Italian Banking Association.
FROM THE ADRIATIC TO SIBERIA
While UniCredit's units in Russia, Turkey and Poland are performing well, a new boss could look at cutting losses by shedding some of its more daring acquisitions.
Profumo led UniCredit's rise to become the biggest lender in emerging Europe, serving retail and business customers in 4,000 branches from the Adriatic Sea to Siberia.
UniCredit has already written more than half a billion euros off its loss-making Kazakh bank ATF, which it bought for $2.1 billion in late 2007.
"Profumo's strategy was one of growing outside Italy. Is a new guy to going to keep to that? Depending on who the new guy is, he might want to sell some assets," said the London-based analyst.
Profumo quit amid board rancour over Libyan stake-building in the bank. Libya's growing involvement -- and Profumo's possible role in it -- sparked fear among foundations that he was trying to marginalise them.
Libya's central bank and Tripoli's sovereign wealth fund have a combined stake of around 7.6 percent. Bank rules bar a single shareholder from having a voting stake of more than 5 percent.
Underscoring worry in the centre-right government about the impact of a headless UniCredit on the economy, Italy's Financial Stability Committee will have the bank on its agenda when it meets on Thursday, a government source said.
The panel includes Bank of Italy Governor Mario Draghi and Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti. Newspaper reports said Tremonti had urged UniCredit shareholders to keep Profumo on.
UniCredit said in a statement early on Wednesday that Chairman Dieter Rampl would act as interim chief executive. He will be in charge of hiring Profumo's successor in the next few weeks, it said.
Possible successors include former Goldman Sachs Group Inc executive Claudio Costamagna and Matteo Arpe, former chief executive of Rome's Capitalia bank, which was bought by UniCredit in 2007.
The analyst said a replacement was more likely to come from outside the bank, noting that press speculation had focused on external candidates.
"I hope it's a matter of weeks and not months without a replacement. You don't want a beast like UniCredit running around without a head," he said.
(Additional reporting by Boris Groendahl in Vienna, Gianluca Semeraro in Milan and Giuseppe Fonte in Rome; Editing by Will Waterman)