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Deals

Danone's CEO in the spotlight after activist calls for shake-up

PARIS (Reuters) - An activist investor has called on Danone chief executive Emmanuel Faber to step down after taking a stake in the French food group late last year.

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Shares in the maker of Actimel yoghurt and Evian bottled water moved higher on Tuesday after news of the investment emerged. The shares fell 27% in 2020 and Danone had been touted as a prime target for an activist fund.

Bluebell Capital Partners - whose executives have pushed for changes at fashion label Hugo Boss in Germany and lender Mediobanca in Italy - took a stake in Danone in 2020, according to a letter sent by the fund to Danone board member Michel Landel in November, and seen by Reuters.

“The share price performance has been disappointing under the leadership of Mr Faber,” the letter read, saying that the company needed to start recruiting a new chief executive. Bluebell also called for the CEO and chairman roles, held jointly by Faber, to be split.

The size of the Bluebell stake was not disclosed. Investors in French companies have to declare their holdings when they pass the 5% threshold.

Danone shares were up 1.5% at 1010 GMT.

“In the short term, discussion of potential CEO change drives up the shares,” analysts at Bernstein said in a note, adding, however, that this might be short-lived as even new managers would bring no quick fix.

Faber has been chief executive since 2014 and also took on the chairman’s role three years later.

London-based Bluebell Capital Partners’s founders include Francesco Trapani, the former boss of jeweller Bulgari.

Danone said in a statement on Monday that its leadership team was “highly focused on delivering long-term sustainable value for our shareholders.”

Danone had stepped up measures to ward off the pressure in recent weeks, as the COVID-19 pandemic further complicated its outlook and sapped its sales to the restaurant sector.

In announced a plan to cut 2,000 jobs in November and said it would trim product ranges, and also created a new strategy committee.

Activist investors, long put off by a cosy corporate culture in France and a large number of state-owned companies, have increasingly taken a run at French firms in recent years, though with mixed results.

U.S. fund Elliot Capital Management built up a stake in drinks maker Pernod Ricard in late 2018, but has since sold out.

Website Challenges.fr first reported Bluebell’s campaign on Monday.

Reporting by Silvia Aloisi in Milan and Benoit Van Overstraeten and Dominique Vidalon in Paris, writing by Sarah White; Editing by Louise Heavens and Keith Weir

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