By Sruthi Ramakrishnan and Edwin Chan
SAN FRANCISCO, March 4 (Reuters) - Apple Inc's Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer will retire and hand the reins to Luca Maestri in September, entrusting to the Italian-born executive a cash pile the size of Vietnam's economy and the difficult task of guiding Wall Street's expectations.
The 50-year-old born in Rome is taking over with Apple at a crossroads. Investors continue to clamor for the company to put its industry-leading $160 billion hoard to better use than just parked overseas, while rivals Google and Facebook shell out tens of billions of dollars snapping up cutting-edge tech companies like Nest and WhatsApp.
Managing investors' outsized expectations may become more difficult as Apple - facing slowing revenue growth and more aggressive competition - dives deeper into lower-margin but higher-growth emerging markets like China, where cheaper local players Huawei and Xiaomi dominate.
"Maestri will be assuming this role at an interesting time - when Apple is in the midst of launching more services and likely needs to convince investors that it has more consistent revenue streams in a commoditizing smart phone market," Barclays analyst Ben Reitzes wrote on Tuesday.
"We know Maestri quite well and believe he will support consistent plans for capital return and thoughtful, achievable guidance."
Maestri, who has worked in countries from Brazil to Thailand, is not expected to pursue radical changes to the iPhone maker's capital return strategy.
Longer-term, the company is also under increasing pressure to come up with the next big thing. Some investors bet that Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook will finally unveil a revolutionary new product this year, breaking a dry spell of several years during which it stuck mainly to iterations of the iPhone and iPad.
Oppenheimer, 51, had been CFO since 2004 and was the architect behind a $100 billion capital return program established a year ago in response to demands the company do more with its ballooning cash hoard.
He joined Apple from Xerox Corp in 2013. He spent 20 years at General Motors where he worked as CFO of several units including GM Europe. Before joining Xerox, he was CFO of network equipment maker Nokia Siemens Networks.
TAKING UP THE BATON
Over the past few quarters, Oppenheimer has moved Apple, which for years routinely smashed investors' expectations, toward more realistic financial targets and outlooks as the company amassed size and expanded into new markets.
Its business has also grown rapidly beyond mainly hardware sales and into areas such as software and digital content. Now, Maestri assumes responsibility for outlining the investment case for a company under an intense media and industry spotlight.
"Managing Wall Street's expectations became an exceptional challenge for Apple over the past couple of years," said Morningstar analyst Brian Colello. "It's clear what drives Apple's growth. The issue is managing such a large, scrutinized company."
"Now it's become more of a leveling-off (of expectations). And that will continue."
Apple's shares were up 0.7 percent at $531.24 in late trade.
Oppenheimer, who joined Apple in 1996, will start handing over in June to Maestri. Named to the board of Goldman Sachs Group Inc on Monday, he said in Tuesday's statement he would use some of his free time to complete his pilot's license.
"When we were recruiting for a corporate controller, we met Luca and knew he would become Peter's successor," Cook said.
On Tuesday, he noted that Apple's revenue had risen to $171 billion from $8 billion during Oppenheimer's tenure as CFO.
Cook and other executives had said the company intends to update shareholders and investors on their cash management strategy around April.
The company's growing cash pile has been a perennial source of discontent amongst investors, given much of it is parked overseas without significant returns and the company has proven conservative in pursuing acquisitions.
The company has said it will return $100 billion to shareholders by the end of 2015 through dividends and share repurchases. In February, Apple said it had bought more than $40 billion of its shares over the past 12 months, helping to satisfy activist Carl Icahn and other investors, at least for now.
"Oppenheimer had a very successful run but joined Apple at a time when the personal technology market was focused exclusively on personal computers," said University of Notre Dame visiting professor of marketing Brett Robinson, author of "Appletopia."
"Apple's hiring of Luca Maestri, who has broad international experience, is consonant with Apple's strategy to expand their global footprint."