By Francesco Zecchini and Giuseppe Fonte
MILAN (Reuters) -Italy has picked a group led by U.S. private equity fund Certares, backed by Air France-KLM and Delta Air Lines Inc, for exclusive talks on buying a majority stake in ITA Airways.
The consortium beat a rival bid presented by shipping group MSC and Germany’s Lufthansa for the chance to buy control of the successor to Alitalia.
The Certares offer, details of which were not made public, would leave the Italian Treasury with a robust minority stake, three sources close to the matter said, with one saying it would be “at least 40%”.
Certares, which has its European headquarters in Milan, had reportedly been offering around 600 million euros ($599 million) for a stake of about 60%, but two of the sources said the valuation in the deal was considerably higher than that.
Rome’s main Fiumicino airport would be at the centre of the industrial plan presented by Certares, they added.
Air France-KLM welcomed the decision, saying it would initially be a commercial and operational partner for Certares.
“Air France-KLM at this stage is not investing in ITA’s capital structure. However, Air France-KLM Group could consider in the medium term to take a minority stake in ITA,” the company said in a statement.
The sources said both Air France and Delta had expressed interest in entering ITA’s capital structure at a later stage, with different timing.
A separate source said MSC and Lufthansa had offered 850 million to 900 million euros for a larger 80% stake.
“We take note of the decision. We are still convinced our offer with MSC is the better solution,” a Lufthansa spokesperson said, adding that Italy had chosen the option that retained greater state influence. MSC declined to comment.
“This is surprising because MSC-Lufthansa was previously considered the preferred bidder,” said Johannes Braun from Stifel Research.
“From an investor perspective (for Lufthansa), it’s a relief,” he added, noting concerns over predecessor Alitalia’s history of running up losses.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government is pressing on with attempts to strike a preliminary deal before a national election on Sept. 25.
The Brothers of Italy party, which is topping the polls, has called for the next administration to be allowed to make a final decision on ITA.
($1 = 1.0013 euros)
(Reporting by Francesco Zecchini and Giuseppe Fonte; additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach in Frankfurt; editing by Agnieszka Flak, Keith Weir and Jonathan Oatis)