Olivetti peace plan for London investors

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The Independent Online
Olivetti, the beleaguered Italian electronics group, has held out an olive branch to London-based institutional investors by offering them a seat on the board.

The move is being seen as an attempt to resolve a crisis that has threatened to push Olivetti to the brink of collapse.

Rudolfo De Benedetti, son of former Olivetti chairman Carlo, made the offer earlier this week on behalf of his family at a meeting in Italy with Mark Pignatelli, a director with ING Baring Asset Management.

Mr Pignatelli talked with other investors representing about a quarter of Olivetti's shares before telling the company the shareholders thought the offer was a good idea.

The name of Dario Trevisan, a Milanese lawyer and shareholder rights activist, has been put forward to speak for the City institutions. He is often asked to represent and vote for foreign investors at Italian shareholders' meetings.

Olivetti was plunged into crisis last month when it reported a greater than expected 440bn lire ($293m) loss and Carlo De Benedetti resigned as chairman.

The first-half accounts were publicly questioned by Renzo Francesconi, a former Olivetti director, prompting investigations by public prosecutors and stock market regulators which last week led to the resignation of Olivetti's chief executive, Francesco Caio.

Prosecutors yesterday began questioning Mr Caio regarding the group's first-half results. Mr Caio's lawyer, Ennio Festa, said his client was "appearing at his own initiative to provide explanations concerning the accusations of falsified accounting made against him".

"The half-year balance sheet is less important than the one for the full year," Mr Festa said. "It is made up of estimates and provisions." Olivetti's final first-half results are expected to be released on Monday.

In a separate development, French industrial holding group CGIP yesterday confirmed it was in talks to buy Carlo De Benedetti's $1bn stake in French car parts maker Valeo.

Mr De Benedetti controls Valeo through a complicated series of shareholdings. He controls 56 per cent of Cofide, which has 50.1 per cent of CIR, which in turn owns 49 per cent of Cerus. Valeo is 27 per cent owned by Cerus.

Selling the Valeo stake would raise enough money to pay down most of the debt amassed in Mr De Benedetti's holding companies.

CGIP's announcement sent shares in CIR soaring on the Milan stock exchange. They had fallen to an all-time low after Mr De Benedetti took majority control of CIR last week when he increased his stake from 48.5 per cent. Since then, the shares have risen by almost a quarter.

Consob, the Italian stock market regulator, is looking into whether Mr De Benedetti's share purchase constitutes insider trading in the light of the announcement yesterday from CGIP. Analysts in Milan claim investors who sold shares in CIR last week did not have the same information about Valeo as Mr De Benedetti had when he raised his holding in CIR.

On the Milan stock exchange, shares in Olivetti bucked a firmer market trend to close 2.4 lire lower at 525 lire as investors focused on the questioning of Mr Caio over the allegations about misleading interim results.