Canadian billionaire Watsa to focus on internal growth at insurance empire

TORONTO, April 11 (Reuters) - Canadian billionaire Prem Watsa told shareholders of Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd on Thursday that the company will focus on internal growth at its key insurance business and step up efforts to boost its stock price by focusing on investment returns.

Watsa, who oversees insurance and other businesses in more than 100 countries, expressed disappointment at the company’s weak stock performance and book value over the past five years, largely the result of unimpressive returns from its investment holdings.

He said Fairfax was de-emphasizing acquisition-driven growth, but assured shareholders that would not limit the company’s overall performance.

Watsa nonetheless defended some of Fairfax’s core holdings, which include BlackBerry Ltd and Greek lender Eurobank Ergasias SA, and told shareholders to be patient and ignore the short-term stock market fluctuations and focus on the long-term performance.

“We are building the company for the next hundred years, long after I am gone,” he told shareholders at the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

Watsa, who is sometimes referred to as Canada’s Warren Buffett, established Fairfax as a trucking insurance company more then three decades ago. Fairfax has a market value of C$17.1 billion ($12.8 billion) and its insurance companies last year underwrote $15.5 billion in premiums around the world.

Watsa, who has a big exposure to India, said he was bullish the country’s growth prospects. He said that with a little of bit luck, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party could win a majority in the general elections that kicked off on Thursday.

$1 = 1.3371 Canadian dollars Reporting by Denny Thomas