France’s biggest lender, Credit Agricole (CA), yesterday edged one step closer to the realization of its bid for wresting control of Emporiki Bank, Greece’s fourth largest bank by assets. Its improved offer of 25 euros per share, against the initial 23.5 euros submitted in June, was approved by the Capital Market Commission. Early next week, the ministerial privatizations committee will confer to consider the offer, which totals about 3.3 billion euros for 100 percent of Emporiki, and is expected to endorse it. Economy Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis said the government will assess the offer «positively.» Emporiki shareholders will be able to submit statements of acceptance at National Bank branches until August 7. CA already holds a 9 percent stake in Emporiki’s share capital and 11 percent of voting rights. Yesterday it raised its direct holding to 11.09 percent, buying just under 3 million shares at 25 euros. The minimum required for the bid to be successful is 40 percent. The Public Portfolio Management Company holds about 11 percent, other public organizations another 11 percent, social insurance funds about 20 percent, foreign institutionals 21 percent, Greek institutionals 6.6 percent and Greek retail investors about 20 percent. If successful, CA’s acquisition of Emporiki will be the biggest foreign direct investment in recent years, with a multiple positive impact on the domestic financial system and the economy as a whole. The government will have one additional reason for satisfaction. In 2003 its PASOK predecessor attempted to sell a further 9 percent to the French. The Socialists were rebuffed. Business plan According to sources, CA’s plan for Emporiki includes investing about 50 million euros, additional accounting provisions of 400 million and an early retirement program; about 300 million euros of provisions will be for credit risk and a further 100 million for other items. The business plan is based on five principles: The creation of infrastructure for future growth; more efficient risk management; increasing market share and productivity, and improvement of customer service; better human resources management; a disciplined approach to cost control. CA has said it wants to create a stronger Greek bank, under Greek management, that will operate in the broader Balkan region under the umbrella of the world’s sixth-largest banking group, and not simply the acquisition of a Greek subsidiary. The early retirement program is targeting the exit of 500 staff by 2008 but the business plan envisages the hiring of 250 sales people over the next two years and the introduction of training programs for all personnel. Emporiki employees have called a two-day strike next Tuesday and Wednesday to coincide with the expected meeting of the ministerial privatizations committee. The CA group operates in 66 countries in all continents, has 21 million clients, 91,000 branches, 135,000 staff and reported a profit of 25.9 billion euros last year.