March 2, 2017 / 3:48 PM / 6 months ago

Generali puts Dutch business up for sale: sources

The Assicurazioni Generali logo is seen in downtown Milan, Italy, February 8, 2016.Stefano Rellandini/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) - Italy's biggest insurer Generali (GASI.MI) has hired BNP Paribas to sell its Dutch business as part of a plan to cut costs in weaker markets and boost profits, sources told Reuters.

Generali, which generates most of its revenues and earnings in Italy, France and Germany, is looking to auction off its subsidiary Generali Nederland N.V., which has been active in the Netherlands for more than 140 years covering risks from damage to income, pensions and life insurance.

If successful, the deal would be the first in a series of divestments that Generali announced in November in a bid to raise about 1 billion euros ($1 billion) by leaving 13 to 15 countries.

Representatives of Generali and BNP Paribas declined to comment.

Generali more than tripled its overall net profit in the Netherlands between 2014 and 2015, generating 5.4 million euros in 2015. But its non-life insurance unit, Generali Schade, was hit by shrinking demand with net profits plunging from 4.5 million euros in 2014 to 1.9 million euros in 2015.

Generali's French boss Philippe Donnet recently came under pressure as he tried to fend off a takeover attempt by Italy's biggest retail bank, Intesa Sanpaolo (ISP.MI), which was hoping to create a financial giant with a market value of around 60 billion euros.

On Feb. 24 Intesa decided against launching a takeover bid for Generali, arguing the deal would not create enough value for its investors.

Generali, whose biggest shareholder is influential investment bank Mediobanca (MDBI.MI), is seen by Rome as a strategic asset because of its large holdings of Italian government bonds.

Yet the insurer, which ranks as Europe's third biggest, remains vulnerable to declining profits and possible approaches by larger rivals Allianz (ALVG.DE) and Axa (AXAF.PA), the sources said.

Generali is more focused than its main competitors on capital-intensive traditional life products, rather than on unit-linked or index-linked policies.

Two of the sources said Generali will announce an acceleration in its cost-cutting efforts at its annual results on March 16.

Generali, with a market value of 21.4 billion euros, has seen its share price tumble almost 27 percent over the past 24 months.

Its chief financial officer and general manager Alberto Minali quit in January leaving Donnet, who took over as CEO a year ago, to pursue a pledge to cut operating costs in mature markets by 200 million euros over the 2016-19 period.

The sources said the insurer has put a number of countries under review, including Belgium and Portugal where it lacks scale.

In South America it is looking to sell its local subsidiaries in Colombia, Panama and Ecuador, they said, although it has yet to pick banks to manage the process. But Argentina and Brazil are seen as core markets.

The Trieste-based insurer may need up to 18 months to finalize all the planned divestments, one of the sources said, pointing to lackluster appetite among industry players due to Generali's marginal presence in most of these countries.

Insurers that recently fled Latin American markets include Britain's RSA (RSA.L), which sold its local business to Colombia's Grupo Sura in 2015 for 403 million pounds.

Additional reporting by Stephen Jewkes and Gianluca Semeraro in Milan; Editing by Ruth Pitchford

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