MILAN, March 6 (Reuters) - Telecom Italia Chief Executive Marco Patuano said he has never been asked to sell the company’s Brazilian business, following reports that top investor Vivendi was pushing for a disposal.
Patuano held a strategy meeting in Paris with Vivendi executives last week, fuelling market speculation that the French group led by business tycoon Vincent Bollore might force change with or without the current CEO.
Media reports have said Vivendi was growing impatient with Patuano and had been sounding out potential replacements. Sources have told Reuters that one bone of contention was that Vivendi wanted to sell Telecom Italia’s Brazilian unit, TIM Participacoes, while Patuano did not.
Patuano told Il Sole 24 Ore in an interview he had “never received” requests to sell the business and continued to believe in the Latin American country despite a deep recession.
“Our strategy is to invest in infrastructure as part of a broadly organic growth path,” he said, adding potential tie-ups there should be assessed but did not offer obvious solutions.
Telecom Italia last month walked away from a proposal to merge the unit with rival Oi in a deal involving Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman’s investment firm.
“From the talks we had with Fridman, it was clear from the start there was no agreement on the respective roles in the combined entity,” Patuano said, adding Telecom Italia would only accept to be the “industrial leader” of the merged group.
Asked whether he found it embarrassing to be presenting his new business plan while Vivendi has been examining candidates for his job for months, Patuano said: “Managers always respond with their performance and shareholders are always sovereign.”
The company on Friday denied a report on website Dagospia that he was leaving to be replaced by former head of Italian state TV Luigi Gubitosi.
Patuano’s new business plan to 2018 envisages 12 billion euros ($13.4 billion) of investments in Italy to build out faster fixed and mobile networks.
Patuano told Il Sole 24 Ore Vivendi had approved the plan “with conviction”. Asked about Vivendi’s request for cost cuts, he said Telecom Italia already had the highest margins in Europe but would look at other steps to boost efficiency.
Patuano added Telecom Italia was not involved in talks which according to media reports Vivendi is holding with Silvio Berlusconi’s broadcaster Mediaset about a possible deal.
Vivendi, which owns 23.8 percent of Telecom Italia, has declined to comment on Patuano’s position. A source close to the matter said on Friday it might be pushing for change but cannot act alone as it only has four of 17 board members.
The source said Telecom Italia was strategic for the whole Italian industry, the financial sector and political powers, and nothing could happen without the involvement of these players. (Reporting by Silvia Aloisi, editing by David Evans)