* Board, Dloti clash over priorities for company
* Dloti leaves after three years at helm
* Standard Bank head of investment bank replaces him (Adds chairman comment)
By TJ Strydom
JOHANNESBURG, May 30 (Reuters) - The chief executive of Liberty Holdings abruptly left the company on Tuesday following a clash with the board over the immediate priorities for South Africa’s fourth largest insurer by market value.
Thabo Dloti, at the helm for the past three years, leaves Liberty in the middle of a turnaround plan led by its majority shareholder, South African bank Standard Bank, and an acquisition-led expansion drive elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Thabo is leaving Liberty following a difference of opinion with the board on the immediate focus of the company at a time when the organisation is facing tough operational and environmental challenges,” Liberty said in a statement.
Dloti was not immediately available for comment.
Liberty said it had appointed David Munro, head of Standard Bank’s investment banking unit, as a replacement for Dloti.
Liberty, which vies with larger Sanlam and Discovery, has lagged rivals both operationally and in the stock market over last three years as jobs losses, tentative economic growth and higher interest rates at home hit consumers’ disposable income.
Chairman Jacko Maree told Talk Radio 702 that Liberty, which targets mid-to-upper income earners, had lost market share in key areas and its profit margins were under pressure.
“Liberty has gotten a little bit stuck in its core market and has battled to expand into lower income groups,” Maree said. “We have pretty ambitious African expansion plans and a lot of them haven’t quite borne fruit but the company is not broken, it’s not in crisis.”
The company, which bought four short-term insurers in Uganda, Botswana, Malawi and Nigeria between 2016 and this year, reported a 38 percent drop in annual profit in February.
Its stock is down nearly 9 percent over the past year, against a 1.5 percent fall in the blue-chip JSE Top-40 index . The shares closed 3.3 percent higher in what traders said was on the back of hopes new chief executive Monroe would accelerate the company’s turnaround.
Standard Bank’s joint-chief executive Sim Tshabalala said Liberty remained a fundamentally sound business and the majority shareholder was confident of the insurer’s long-term profitability.
“Our ongoing priority is to enable to achieve its growth by focusing on a short-term recovery plan and a longer-term strategy to reinforce its competitiveness,” Tshabalala said in a separate statement.
Standard Bank owns 53 percent of Liberty, which was founded in 1957 local businessman and philanthropist Donald Gordon. Standard Bank has appointed Kenny Fihla, the deputy chief executive of corporate investment banking, to take Munro’s place at the bank. (Additional reporting by Tiisetso Motsoeneng; Editing by Greg Mahlich and David Evans)