* Hydro chairman says CEO asked for early retirement
* New CEO hopes to restore idled Brazil capacity this year
* Cabinet minister applauds appointment of female CEO (Adds quotes, share price, background, bullets)
By Nerijus Adomaitis
OSLO, March 18 (Reuters) - Norsk Hydro, one of the world’s largest aluminium makers, said on Monday it will replace its chief executive in May as the company seeks to restore production at its troubled Alunorte plant in Brazil and boost earnings.
Svein Richard Brandtzaeg, CEO of Hydro for a decade, will be replaced by Hilde Merete Aasheim, who has been head of the company’s Primary Metal unit since 2008.
The Norwegian metals producer has seen its share price dive by almost 40 percent in the last 13 months following a court-ordered shutdown of parts of its Brazilian operation that was triggered by a spill from one of its plants.
“I am confident that we have what it takes to turn a current challenging situation, for Hydro and for the global aluminium industry, into opportunities that will build the company for the future,” Aasheim said.
The company’s woes are centred on its Alunorte refinery, the largest of its kind outside China, which transforms bauxite from mines into alumina, the key material used for making aluminium at smelters.
Alunorte is operating at 50 percent of capacity after Hydro admitted it had made unlicensed emissions of untreated water during severe rains in February last year.
Hydro board Chairman Dag Mejdell said Brandtzaeg, 61, had asked for early retirement.
“It’s been a very hard year for (him), no doubt. It’s been a very demanding situation in Brazil,” Mejdell told Reuters.
Hydro’s underlying operating earnings fell by almost 20 percent in 2018 as the Alunorte outage and a higher cost of raw materials weighed on results, the company said last week.
Aasheim now faces the task of boosting Hydro’s prospects.
“There is a need to enforce more initiatives and efforts to improve our earnings basis,” Mejdell said.
Separately, Aasheim said she was hopeful that Hydro could bring production in Brazil back to full capacity this year.
Trine Skei Grande, head of Norway’s Liberal Party and a member of the centre-right coalition government, applauded the appointment of a woman to lead Hydro, the first in the company’s 114-year history.
“Norsk Hydro gets a female chief executive. That was about time,” Skei Grande tweeted.
The Norwegian government is Hydro’s largest shareholder with a stake of 34 percent.
Hydro’s shares were up 1.8 percent at 35.76 crowns ($4.19) by 0842 GMT, outperforming Norway’s benchmark index. ($1 = 8.5255 Norwegian crowns) (Writing by Terje Solsvik Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips and Louise Heavens)