New Atlantia CEO apologizes for bridge disaster, seeks talks with government

MILAN (Reuters) – The new CEO of Italy’s Atlantia signaled a fresh approach on Friday to the crisis caused by the deadly collapse of a bridge operated by its motorway arm in 2018, apologizing for the disaster and seeking talks with the government.

Carlo Bertazzo’s predecessor was heavily criticized by politicians for a delay in apologizing for the death of 43 people and also took a more confrontational approach to Rome’s threat to strip Atlantia of its highway concession.

“First of all, we apologize to the families of the victims and to all Italians,” Bertazzo told La Stampa newspaper in his first interview since taking over at Atlantia, which is 30% owned by the Benetton family.

Following the collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, operated by Atlantia’s Autostrade per l’Italia unit, Rome has threatened to remove the group’s motorway concession, which generates about a third of Atlantia’s core earnings.

The company has previously warned the government it would legally challenge any revocation and Bertazzo reiterated that without the concession, Autostrade would likely go bankrupt.

However, he signaled an openness to negotiate.

“We give concrete availability to the government to find a balanced solution in the general interest,” he said.

Sources told Reuters last week Atlantia would be prepared to discuss reducing road tolls and revising the terms of the contract of its concession, which expires in 2038.

The ruling 5-Star Movement has called for Atlantia to be stripped of its concession while its governing partner, the center-left Democratic Party, has been more cautious, pointing out that negotiating contract changes would carry fewer risks than a potential protracted legal battle.

Two 5-Star lawmakers told Reuters the recent resignation of Luigi Di Maio as leader of 5-Star did not pave the way for any alternative solution to revocation, adding the cabinet was expected to discuss the issue in the next few days.

Bertazzo, who has worked for 25 years as top executive in the Benetton family holding company Edizione, also said the group did not exclude selling even a majority stake in some of its units, which, besides Autostrade, include airport operator Aeroporti di Roma and motorway electronic payment unit Telepass.

“Nothing is taboo, it depends on the quality of the partners and on the possibility of creating greater value with them”, he said.

Last week Gianni Mion, another manager close to the Benetton family, said Atlantia was open to talks about an investment in its businesses by state-backed infrastructure fund F2i.

On Friday, Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore said the idea of spinning off Autostrade had re-emerged, adding it was an option that appealed to politicians and investors.

(Reporting by Francesca Landini, Sabina Suzzi and Giuseppe Fonte; Editing by Mark Potter and David Evans)