Atlantia Backs Landmark Sale of Autostrade to Italy State Lender
(Bloomberg) -- The battle to control Italy’s largest highway operator neared its end on Monday, almost three years after a deadly bridge collapse in the city of Genoa sparked rounds of acrimonious talks between the billionaire Benetton family and the government.
At a meeting Monday, some 87% of investors at Atlantia SpA backed the sale of the company’s Autostrade SpA highway unit to an investor group led by Italy’s state-backed lender, an eleventh-hour victory for the Benettons, who control the infrastructure giant.
Atlantia’s board, which in the absence of other options ultimately decided to back the sale to the state lender, Cassa Depositi e Prestiti SpA, is expected to meet June 10 to give its final approval. Atlantia shares rose as much as 4.7% in Milan after Bloomberg first reported the approval.
The vote marks a crucial step toward closing the book on the August 2018 Morandi Bridge disaster, when 43 people died in an accident that traumatized the nation and triggered billions of euros in legal claims.
In addition to causing national outrage, sometimes fomented by politicians, the bridge collapse also led to the eventual resignation and arrest of Atlantia’s former Chief Executive Officer Giovanni Castellucci.
The deal could mark a turning point for the Benettons while raising questions on the future of Atlantia, which controls airports in Italy and France and highways in Spain and South America.
Since the 2018 accident the family, best known outside the country for its namesake clothing brand, has shaken up management at both its Edizione holding company and at Atlantia.
The battle between Rome and Atlantia raged on under three straight administrations, featuring a series of often-heated negotiations between the government and Atlantia’s controlling shareholders and executives, but also including the bidding group led by Cassa Depositi and funds Macquarie Group Ltd. and Blackstone Group Inc.
That group has been trying to buy Autostrade since last summer, with Atlantia’s board rejecting a string of offers. The final bid values Autostrade at 9.3 billion euros ($11.4 billion). Atlantia owns about 88% of the highway manager.
|Atlantia to Let Investors Have the Final Word on Autostrade Bid|
|Benettons Urge Atlantia to Seal Highway Unit Sale to Italy|
|Genoa Slowly Takes Next Step in Moving On From Bridge Tragedy|
A decision to sell would close the curtain on more than two decades of Benetton ownership of Autostrade and mark the culmination of years of political pressure on the family to yield their controlling stake in the company, mostly from Giuseppe Conte’s populist government, which was in place at the time of the bridge tragedy.
The Conte government went as far as to threaten to revoke Autostrade’s toll contracts after a ministerial commission charged that the company had underestimated the deterioration of the structure.
Even under the current government led by Mario Draghi, which takes a markedly different approach to corporate intervention than its predecessor, political pressure to sell the road network never ceased.
The Benettons bought Autostrade during Italy’s privatization campaign in the late 1990s, spearheaded by the Draghi-led Treasury. Now, the company will come full circle, returning to state control with Draghi as premier.
Signing off on the deal could also be one of the first acts for Cassa Depositi’s new CEO Dario Scannapieco, who worked with Draghi at the Treasury during the privatization campaign and was tapped by the premier last week to run the state lender.
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