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Vekselberg backs eviction of Sulzer chairman

Relations between Berg (l) and Vekselberg broke down Keystone

The chairman of technology concern Sulzer, Ulf Berg, has been voted out of office following a rift with major shareholder Viktor Vekselberg.

This content was published on April 8, 2009 - 14:38

The overwhelming vote by shareholders at the company's annual general meeting on Wednesday follows a bitter stand off over the Russian billionaire's secret stockpiling of Sulzer shares two years ago.

Berg's fate was sealed weeks ago when Vekselberg's investment firm Renova, that owns nearly a third of Sulzer, publicly stated it would not be supporting a proposal to re-elect him at the AGM.

Some 55 per cent of votes went against Berg, who joined the company as chief executive in 2004 and took up the role of chairman three years later.

The other three members of the board were re-elected by a landslide.

After the meeting the board elected Luciano Respini as its new chairman.

The victory represents the second Swiss company coup in as many years for Vekselberg, who wrested control of industrial giant Oerlikon from his Austrian partners in 2008.

Criticism

The bid to remove Berg from office at Sulzer drew sharp criticism from local politicians in Winterthur. The company has been based in the city for 175 years and is a leading employer in the area.

Winterthur mayor Ernst Wohlwend had previously urged shareholders to vote to retain the current board. He is also concerned about unconfirmed rumours that Vekselberg plans to merge Sulzer with another engineering company Oerlikon, in which he also has a large stake.

"I don't see any reason that Sulzer should lose its autonomy. On the contrary: the city will profit if Sulzer remains autonomous," he told the NZZ newspaper earlier this year.

Vekselberg created waves in Switzerland two years ago when he began to secretly build stakes in household name industrial companies, including Sulzer. He briefly teamed up with Austrian investors Ronny Pecik and Georg Stumpf, but the partnership dissolved in acrimony.

The stealth tactics led to a storm of protest from business leaders, including Berg, and led to a change in company takeover rules.

The Swiss finance ministry announced on Tuesday that it had opened criminal proceedings against the three investors for allegedly breaking market regulations in mass buying Sulzer shares.

swissinfo with agencies

Vekselberg in Switzerland

Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg has made waves and generated headlines (many negative) ever since he started investing in Swiss industrial companies.

Before the financial crisis, Vekselberg was reported to be Russia's fifth wealthiest individual with a personal fortune of SFr8.1 billion ($7 billion). His holding company Renova has long been associated with Zug-based commodity trader Glencore and he recently set up residence in Zurich.

Vekselberg turned his attention to Swiss manufacturing companies in 2006, secretly building up stakes in household name firms. Renova briefly teamed up with Austrian investment group Victory to create a joint enterprise named Everest, but it was soon dissolved in acrimony.

The stake-building by stealth strategy drew sharp criticism from Swiss business leaders, including Sulzer CEO Ulf Berg, which led to a change in market regulations.

The Swiss finance ministry announced on Tuesday that it has opened criminal proceedings against Vekselberg and two Austrian investors for allegedly breaking market rules during their share buying spree.

Last week, Renova increased its stake in Sulzer from 27.1% to 32.1% - just before the Sulzer AGM. Renova has an agreement with Sulzer not to increase its stake to above 33% that would trigger an automatic takeover bid.

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