Cemex leadership unclear after sudden death of CEO

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The leadership of Mexico's Cemex CMXCPO.MXCX.N, one of the world's leading cement makers, is uncertain after the death of Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Lorenzo Zambrano, irking some investors who would prefer a smooth transition.

Employees hold a photograph of Lorenzo Zambrano at a building of Mexican cement giant Cemex in Monterrey May 13, 2014. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

There had been no reports that Zambrano, who had been Cemex CEO for three decades, was ill and he said late last month he was not thinking about a succession plan. The company said Zambrano died of natural causes in Madrid on Monday at the age of 70 and Mexican media reported he was believed to have had a heart attack.

“I would have liked a more orderly transition,” a top-20 shareholder in Cemex, who asked not to be identified, said on Tuesday. “The company faced rocky times to finance its debt, and I imagine that crisis affected the transition plan.”

The shareholder would like to see Francisco Garza, chairman of Cemex’s advisory board, take over. Chief Financial Officer Fernando Gonzalez is another potential candidate. He led efforts to restructure Cemex’s debt and frequently talks to investors.

Cemex’s 14-member executive team includes 10 people with more than 20 years of experience with the company.

The board’s corporate practices committee discussed a succession process in February, according to a document on the company’s website. That process has not been made public.

Cemex spokesman Jorge Perez declined to comment when asked about the document and the company’s succession plans. The firm said its board was expected to meet in the coming days but has given no more details.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that senior management and the board are going to do something to allay any kind of concerns about the stewardship,” said Robert Abad, portfolio manager in the emerging markets team at Western Asset Management in Pasadena, California, which has $53 billion in emerging market assets under management and owns Cemex debt.

“This is a very well organized, well oiled machine that has been through crisis after crisis,” Abad said.

Jorge Placido, an analyst at brokerage Vector, said he expects Zambrano’s role will be broken up.

“I think they will appoint two people, one as chairman of the board and the other as chief executive,” Placido said.

Industry insiders and company watchers widely expect Cemex to choose a new leader or leaders from inside the company to ensure continuity of its management policies.

Splitting the roles, both of which Zambrano held, is in line with best international corporate practices.

Placido also named CFO Gonzalez and Cemex Mexico head Juan Romero Torres as possible CEO candidates. He said Zambrano’s first cousin and current board member, Rogelio Zambrano, was a potential pick for chairman.

Shares in Cemex fell as much as 3 percent early on Tuesday before recovering to end the day slightly firmer.

Cemex was founded by his grandfather and Zambrano turned it into an international company with a broad investor base. He had a small stake in the company that went public in Mexico in 1976 and listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1999.

In contrast to Cemex’s apparent succession vacuum, Mexican telecommunications tycoon Carlos Slim handed off day-to-day control of his empire to his children and sons-in-law in recent years, though they consult him.

In 2006, Zambrano was among Mexico’s wealthiest people, worth an estimated $1.8 billion. But his fortune tumbled after a risky purchase of Australian rival Rinker the following year. He fell off Forbes’ richest list, which Slim later led.

Zambrano’s remains were being flown back to his native Monterrey in northern Mexico for a private funeral on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Gabriela Lopez; Editing by Kieran Murray and Grant McCool