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UPDATE 2-Zurich Insurance plays down takeover appetite as profit rebounds
February 9, 2017 / 6:42 AM / 10 months ago

UPDATE 2-Zurich Insurance plays down takeover appetite as profit rebounds

* 2016 net profit jumps 74 percent

* Analysts unconvinced on Zurich goals

* Shares down 1.8 pct (Recasts, adds detail, quotes)

By Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi

ZURICH, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Zurich Insurance has limited appetite for major acquisitions, Chief Executive Mario Greco said on Thursday after the company posted a 74 percent jump in full-year net profit.

With the insurer in the middle of a major overhaul focused on streamlining and cutting costs, Greco said the strategy is about limiting rather than adding bureaucracy.

“I would argue that massive size does not help to be focused on the needs of the customer and actually creates big bureaucracy. It creates high costs and creates distance from the customer’s needs,” he told reporters.

“Our strategy does not depend on acquisitions. Our strategy is organically based.”

Though Greco played down the likelihood of a big deal, acquisitions are not totally out of the picture.

“As last year demonstrated, whenever we find interesting opportunities, we go for them,” he said, referring to December’s move to buy Australia’s Cover-More Group.

Zurich, Europe’s fifth-biggest insurer, had not received any takeover approaches, Greco told Reuters, adding that the company’s $40 billion-plus market value serves as a shield from unwelcome bids.

Greco, recruited from Italian rival Generali last March, admits that much work remains to be done if Zurich is to achieve ambitious 2019 goals, but he is already delivering on a pledge to simplify the famously complex group and cut costs.

Results also benefited from fewer natural catastrophe losses and efforts to curtail less profitable business in its core general insurance unit, helping the group to recover from mis-steps in 2015, including a botched takeover bid for Britain’s RSA.

Zurich reiterated targets Greco set in November, which upped cost-cutting goals to generate net savings of $1.5 billion by 2019, compared with 2015, while trimming the main profitability goal to a more achievable level.

Analysts have been receptive to Greco’s revamp plans -- its share price has risen more than 40 percent since a January 2016 low -- but question whether they are too ambitious.

Shares in the company were down 1.8 percent at 278.90 Swiss francs by 1357 GMT.

“Firstly, we think the cost-cutting plans will be very hard to achieve,” Bernstein analysts wrote in a note. “Secondly, part of the cost savings will be competed away as peers are undertaking similar cost-efficiency programmes.”

Zurich’s full-year net profit rose to $3.21 billion, short of the average estimate of $3.32 billion in a Reuters poll of 11 analysts. Fourth-quarter profit climbed to $685 million, against a $424 million loss in the last three months of 2015. (Editing by David Goodman)

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