March 27, 2012 / 2:18 PM / in 5 years

UPDATE 3-Hitachi approaches Finmeccanica over rail business

* Japan's Hitachi eyes stakes in rail units-trade union

* Talks with Hitachi intensified in recent months-source

* AnsaldoBreda, unions ink deal on restructuring-trade union

* Finmeccanica books 2.3 bln euro FY loss on write-downs

* Finmeccanica shares up more than 10 percent on M&A hopes

By Danilo Masoni and Paolo Biondi

MILAN/ROME, March 27 (Reuters) - Japanese group Hitachi has approached Finmeccanica about buying some of the rail operations the Italian defence firm wants to sell, a union official said on Tuesday, raising hopes the seller's turnaround plan could gain traction.

Finmeccanica , which on Tuesday announced a 2.3 billion euro ($3.06 billion) net loss for 2011, singled out last year its loss-making train-making unit AnsaldoBreda, its rail signalling-systems affiliate Ansaldo STS, and power engineering firm AnsaldoEnergia as non-strategic.

"Hitachi is interested (in AnsaldoBreda and Ansaldo STS). But any marriage would need time and I don't think it's around the corner," Giovanni Contento, national secretary at Italian union UILM, told Reuters.

He said AnsaldoBreda and unions had reached a deal on Monday over the restructuring, a step which analysts say could be crucial for any bidder to enter final talks.

The agreement document, seen by Reuters, sees breakeven b eing reached i n 2014 and cost savings for 280 million euros in three years, of which 45 million euros this year.

A source close to the talks told Reuters that discussions with Hitachi over a stake sale in AnsaldoBreda had intensified in recent months after interest from U.S. General Electric had cooled.

Ansaldo STS, which alone has a market capitalisation of about 1 billion euros, is the most attractive of the transportation assets earmarked for a possible sale.

AnsaldoBreda, which employs about 3,000 people partly in unemployment-plagued cities of Naples and Reggio Calabria, is loss making and has a debt of around 500 million euros.

CLEAN-UP

Finmeccanica unveiled on Tuesday a 2011 net loss of 2.3 billion euros, after booking one-off charges of 3 billion euros to clean up its balance sheet under a new management.

The company, Italy's second biggest industrial employer with some 75,000 staff, underwent a management shake-up in December in the wake of an ongoing corruption probe in Italy that forced out previous boss Pier Francesco Guarguaglini.

The appointment of insider Giuseppe Orsi, who took over Guarguaglini's powers as chairman, was a test for the new Italian government of Mario Monti and reflects in part a change in tone compared to the previous government of Silvio Berlusconi.

"2011 results remove uncertainty a n d lay solid foundations for our future which will mark a break with the past from the industrial, strategic, management and ethical point o f view," Orsi said at a press conference.

Orsi, an aeronautical engineer who started his career 39 years ago in a firm now part of the conglomerate, announced last year plans to sell 1 billion euros of assets by end-20 12 to avo id the group's credit rating bei ng cut to junk.

He is pressing ahead with rebuilding the group's reputation and turning its business round by focusing on core defence and aerospace operations.

Guarguaglini is under investigation as part of the probe focusing on accusations of false invoices and slush funds to pay bribes. He has denied wrongdoing.

FOREIGN INTEREST

The source close to the talks said several foreign groups, including Hitachi, had expressed interest for Finmeccanica's Ansaldo STS. The source mentioned Bombardier Inc, Alstom SA, Siemens AG and Mitsubishi.

Finmeccanica and Alstom declined to comment. The other companies were not immediately available for comment.

In March, Vinhod Sahai, a Milan-based Indian businessmen, told Reuters he had made an expression of interest for AnsaldoBreda on behalf of an Indian investor.

Earlier on Tuesday, Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore said in an unsourced report Hitachi could be close to buying a 50 percent stake in AnsaldoBreda and 29 percent of Ansaldo STS.

An Hitachi spokesman in Tokyo said the company's policy was not to comment on rumours.

Contento, the union leader, said a U.S. or a Japanese partner could make a better fit for AnsaldoBreda because he expected partnership with larger European rivals such as Alstom or Siemens to lead to job losses.

Approval from trade unions would make it easier for Finmeccanica to finalise any deal.

Finmeccanica shares hit a 9-day high on Tuesday before closing almost 11 percent higher at 3.852 euros. The stock h as lo st 60 percent ov er the l ast year as the corruption probe an d expected losses took their toll.

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