Italy’s Generali CEO bets on buyback, bold profit goals to keep job

Generali (GASI.MI) said it would stick to bold earnings goals for 2024, hike dividends and launch its first buyback in 15 years as Philippe Donnet’s bid to stay on as CEO of Italy’s biggest insurer faces opposition from two billionaire investors.

Donnet’s reappointment next year is opposed by construction magnate Francesco Gaetano Caltagirone and Leonardo Del Vecchio, founder of eyewear giant Luxottica, who want the insurer to be more ambitious in expanding via acquisitions.

The new strategy outlined on Wednesday earmarks up to 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) in insurance and asset management.

That compares with a 4 billion euro M&A budget under the previous plan, of which Generali spent 85%.

Donnet, 61, said the latest figure was “a good number”.

“We want to achieve the right balance between the capital which is returned to shareholders and the capital which is invested in growth,” he told a news briefing.

“M&A remains a tool to accelerate value creation for shareholders,” he said, adding Europe and Asia would be targets for insurance and asset management, and the United States and Britain just for asset management.

When the plan was put to a board vote, Caltagirone opposed it. A representative for Del Vecchio did not attend the meeting after saying they received details too late to study them properly, two sources close to the matter said.

Overall, the plan won 11 out of 13 votes, the sources said. Donnet is backed by Mediobanca, Generali’s biggest shareholder. Caltagirone and Del Vecchio are the second and third largest.

Analysts gave Donnet’s plan a thumbs up, but market reaction was muted. Shares rose 0.35% by 1602 GMT.

“Strategically, it looks like more of the same from Generali(which we think is a good thing),” BofA Securities said.

In addition to the buyback over the next 12 months, Generali aims to pay up to 5.6 billion euros in dividends in the next three years, up from 4.5 billion euros in the previous plan.

It said it aimed for average earnings per share (EPS) growth of 6-8% a year, which Jefferies said was a “positive surprise” versus Allianz’s (ALVG.DE) 5-7%.

EXECUTION

“New targets for EPS growth, cash and dividends … are all more ambitious than we had expected,” Kepler Cheuvreux said.

Caltagirone, who could not immediately be reached for comment, and Del Vecchio have agreed to consult over a combined 15.6% voting stake. They are set to propose a new CEO candidate at a board meeting in April, sources close to the matter said.

Mediobanca, which has a 13% holding, has borrowed shares to reach a 17% voting stake.

Under the new strategy, the Trieste-based insurer will increase digital investments by 60% versus 2021 to a cumulative 1.1 billion euros by 2024.

It also aims to boost premiums in non-motor property and casualty by more than 4% a year on average in 2021-2024, targeting small businesses and senior care in Europe and travel insurance in the United States.

“Execution on such a plan will be key as Generali attempts to convince on its digital transformation and develop new revenue streams,” Citi said.