02 May

SOS Cuetara’s top execs fired, shares suspended

by Tracy Rucinski & Rodrigo de Miguel,

Spain’s SOS Cuetara (SOS.MC), the world’s biggest olive oil bottler, said on Thursday it had fired its two top executives after discovering last month they had used company funds to buy SOS shares.

“SOS Group’s board, which met today, has fired Jesus and Jaime Salazar Bello as chairman and deputy chairman,” SOS said in a news release, adding that it had ordered an audit to investigate a holding company set up by the brothers to buy shares.

At the end of March, SOS said that the Salazar brothers had channelled 212 million euros ($282.2 million) of company money into Condor Plus, a holding company which then bought SOS shares in the hope of selling them to a sovereign wealth fund.

Shares in SOS were suspended on Thursday as investors wondered whether the brothers would be forced to sell a large part of their 28 percent stake in SOS which had been put up as collateral for the sovereign wealth deal that has yet to materialise.

“The board has asked the new management team to publicly explain the reasoning and impact of these decisions and to draw up a presentation of the company’s current situation and forecasts for the coming years,” SOS Cuetara said in a statement.

Executive and board member Vicente Sos, whose family has been in the olive business for over a century, has been appointed chairman and Endika Sanchez managing director.

Jesus Salazar was also SOS’s chief executive. The Salazar brothers had planned a major expansion of SOS’s olive oil production through their Land Project, but the plan started to suffer due to the global financial crisis.

The brothers had hoped the deal with the sovereign wealth fund would allow it to plant 100,000 hectares of olive tree plantations in the unnamed country over five years time and revive the project.

Neither of the brothers could immediately be contacted for comment.

SOS Cuetara acquired the Italian olive oil business Bertolli from Unilever (ULVR.L) last year to create the world’s largest olive oil producer with a presence in over 92 countries and sales of 1.24 billion euros in 2008.

Its shares last traded up 0.47 percent at 4.32 euros before trading was suspended on Thursday. The stock, which has lost over 62 percent this year, was trading at over 14 euros per share when the Salazars set up Condor Plus in February 2008. (Reporting by Tracy Rucinski and Rodrigo de Miguel)

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