* Shake-up follows ratings downgrades
* Solvency, operational profitability made priorities
* Suffered big losses on SocGen, Veolia stakes (Writes through with company statement confirming CEO replaced)
By Christian Plumb
Oct 25 (Reuters) - French mutual insurer Groupama [GRPMHA.UL] said on Tuesday its long-standing chief executive had been fired and will be replaced by new management that would seek to boost its financial strength.
The dismissal of Jean Azema, 58, who has run the closely held insurer for more than 11 years, comes after two separate rating agencies downgraded Groupama last month.
Azema will be replaced by Thierry Martel, 48, who had been managing director of Groupama’s insurance and banking units, as well as by Christian Collin, 58, who will serve as deputy CEO.
Collin was named Groupama’s director of finance and risk in early 2010.
“The priority of the new team will be to implement measures that will reinforce the solvency of the Group while, at the same time, continue to improve its operational profitability,” the company said in a statement.
The release said only that Azema had “left the group” but a spokeswoman confirmed that he had been “dismissed.”
Credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s last month cut Groupama’s long-term ratings to BBB from BBB-plus with negative implications, saying management plans to build up capital to acceptable levels may be insufficient.
Fitch Ratings made a similar move later in the month, and Azema told Les Echos around the same time that the insurer would not go public before 2015 and that in the meantime it would focus on cutting costs.
The insurer has seen big losses on two of the main equity stakes in its portfolio, in French bank Societe Generale (SOGN.PA), in which it has a 4.2 percent stake, and water group Veolia Environnement (VIE.PA), in which it has a 5.5 percent stake.
Azema had overseen an ill-fated attempt to acquire a substantial stake in Italian insurer Fondiaria-SAI FOSA.MI, and also recently acknowledged in an interview with French business daily Les Echos that a hoped-for initial public offering would not come before 2015 at the earliest.
The news of Azema’s replacement as CEO was first reported by Les Echos. (Reporting By Christian Plumb; Editing by Tim Dobbyn and Richard Chang)