* Head of Asia region to leave for Levi Strauss
* CEO to keep focus on acquisition strategy
* Says search for new Asia chief has begun
* Shares fall 3.6 percent
By Mette Fraende
COPENHAGEN, April 24 (Reuters) - Carlsberg Chief Executive Jorgen Buhl Rasmussen will step into the breach as he seeks the right candidate to lead the Danish brewer’s push into Asia after it’s regional head resigned on Wednesday.
The world’s fourth-biggest brewer announced that Roy Bagattini is leaving to take a job at fashion group Levi Strauss & Company after heading the Asia division since 2009, but Rasmussen insisted that Carlsberg would not lose focus on its expansion in the region.
Asia has become the main battle ground for the world’s biggest brewers, which are relying on high-growth emerging markets to compensate for weak sales in Europe.
Carlsberg, along with bigger rivals AB InBev, SABMiller and Heineken, is actively seeking acquisitions in the region. It is also working to increase earnings there through premium brands such as its Carlsberg, Tuborg and Baltika beers, which are more expensive than the local brands within its portfolio.
“There will be continuity, and our plans in Asia will proceed precisely as already planned,” Rasmussen said in a telephone interview.
“If there is a gap between Roy leaving us and a new head being appointed, I will take the responsibility for the region.”
Shares in Carlsberg were down 3.6 percent at 1245 GMT, held down by a weak first-quarter result from Heineken and uncertainty over strategy in the wake of Bagattini’s resignation, Alm Brand analyst Stig Nymann said.
Shares in Heineken, the world’s third-largest brewer, fell as much as 5.4 percent after it reported lower than expected first-quarter revenue and said that Europe and Nigeria would cap volume growth this year.
Carslberg CEO Rasmussen said that the search for Bagattini’s successor has already begun and that the new Asia chief would need commercial and merger and acquisition qualifications.
As part of its drive for growth in the region, Carlsberg last month launched a partial takeover bid worth 2.65 billion Danish crowns ($461.49 million) for 30.31 percent of the shares in Chongqing Brewery Company.
If successful, that will give Carlsberg control of the company and a stake of up to 60 percent.
In February the brewer said it was returning to Myanmar after the easing of international sanctions that forced it out of the country in the mid-1990s.
The Asia region accounted for 18 percent of Carlsberg’s total sales volume in 2011 and 12 percent of its operating profit.
Rasmussen said that it is possible that growth in the Asian beer market could slow in the future, but he expects overall growth to continue.
“I believe the consumption of beer is still relatively low in China, particularly in the regions where we are,” he said, referring to the west of the country.