ECONOMY

Oil group bids heat up

Gerhard Roiss, incoming chief executive of Austrian oil group OMV, which is bidding for a minority stake in local oil company Hellenic Petroleum, was effusive as he spelled out the reasons why the two ventures would make a perfect match. We are both state-owned companies, which means we have a good understanding of each other’s corporate culture. Our operations are also complementary, he told Kathimerini English Edition in a telephone interview from Vienna. Roiss, who was in Athens last month to present OMV’s case to Hellenic Petroleum, knows however that cultural and operational similarities will not be enough to win over the Greek government, which is looking for a strategic ally to boost the Greek company’s international profile, especially in the Balkans. The Austrian group faces two strong rivals, Lukoil and Yukos Oil, the largest and second largest oil groups in Russia, both of whom have put in bids for a 15-30 percent stake in Hellenic Petroleum, which has a 57-percent share of the local oil product market. The Russian offers underscored the oil barons’ determination to move into eastern Europe and the Middle East to compensate for fast-depleting oil fields in Russia. Underlining the importance of the Greek energy market, the head of Lukoil accompanied Russian president Vladimir Putin on an official visit to Greece last week. In a telling comment, Putin suggested that Greece could see its role in the European Union increase dramatically if it became a regional distributor of Russian natural gas and oil. OMV’s Roiss said Hellenic Petroleum has two choices. Hellenic Petroleum has to choose between European or Russian integration. The former means more downstream-oriented activities, while the latter points to a strong upstream direction, he said. He said that OMV has the ability and the background to help the Greek company develop its downstream activities. We have refining and marketing projects in the Balkans. OMV is expanding into southeast Europe while Hellenic Petroleum wants to go up north. We can meet each other in the middle, Roiss suggested. OMV which started out as an oil producer and refiner has gradually expanded to downstream activities. It ventured into the filling station business in Hungary in 1991, subsequently expanded to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and today claims to be the second-biggest chain in the majority of central and eastern European countries. Hellenic Petroleum, on the other hand, is only starting to make its presence felt in the Balkans. It is currently developing a pipeline connecting Thessaloniki to Skopje. It entered into a partnership with OMV a few years back on an exploration project in Albania and according to Roiss, the two companies are currently holding talks on cooperation in other areas. The OMV head held out the advantages of its access to the Middle East via its strategic partner International Petroleum Investment Company of Abu Dhabi, which has owned a 19.6-percent stake in OMV since 1994. The strategy of the Austrian government [holder of a 35-percent share] is to integrate OMV into the OPEC block. And Abu Dhabi is a strong oil producer in the Middle East, he pointed out. Contalexis Financial Services analyst Vassilis Vlastarakis said that politics will probably decide who ends up as Hellenic Petroleum’s partner. Putin’s visit was a significant factor and could indirectly affect the State’s choice for Hellenic Petroleum, he argued. He said it was possible that Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis could decide to play a more active role in helping Russia enhance its position vis-a-vis the European Union by offering Hellenic Petroleum to one of the Russian bidders. On the other hand, the fact that OMV has put in a bid could see Brussels putting in a word for the company that comes from an EU member state. The Greek government last week said that binding bids are expected to be submitted in February 2002, and the privatization process completed before Easter.