April 17, 2019 / 2:19 PM / a year ago

UPDATE 2-China's Tianqi taps 'safe choices' for board of top lithium miner SQM

(Recasts with analyst comment, context)

By Dave Sherwood

SANTIAGO, April 17 (Reuters) - China's Tianqi Lithium Corp said on Wednesday it would nominate two Chileans and a U.S. businessman to the board of lithium miner SQM, candidates seen as 'safe choices' for the world's No. 2 lithium producer as it faces booming demand.

Tianqi last year paid $4.1 billion for a near-quarter stake in SQM, as Chinese companies scoured the globe for the ultralight battery metal needed to ramp up Chinese production of electric vehicles.

Lithium is a key component in the batteries that power everything from cellphones to electric cars.

Tianqi's U.S. nominee, businessman Robert Zatta, worked as a chief financial officer until 2015 for Rockwood Holdings, a top competitor of SQM in Chile's Salar de Atacama, before it was purchased by the U.S.-based Albemarle, now the world's top lithium producer.

Previously, Zatta had worked as an executive with the Campbell Soup Company.

Tianqi also nominated Chilean attorney Francisco Ugarte, who represented the Chinese lithium producer in its 2018 purchase of the stake in SQM. The other Chilean nominee, economist Georges de Bourguignon Arndt, is currently on the board of LATAM Airlines, Latin America's largest carrier.

Lithium analyst Joe Lowry called the candidates "non-controversial, safe choices." He noted that Zatta, who has the most experience in battery metals, had been out of the business for several years.

Tianqi's announcement comes days after executives from SQM top shareholder Pampa Group, which in 2018 fiercely contested Tianqi's purchase of a stake in the Chilean miner, flew to China to meet with Tianqi Chief Executive Officer Vivian Wu.

Pampa and Tianqi, now SQM's top two shareholders, struck an agreement following that trip widely seen as a "truce," praising one another and agreeing on a code of conduct for board appointees.

Pampa had previously raised concerns about Tianqi's access to SQM business secrets and the potential they could be leaked to top competitor Albemarle.

Tianqi and Albemarle together participate in a joint venture that controls the world's biggest lithium mine, Greenbushes, in Australia.

A Chilean antitrust court approved in October Tianqi's purchase of the shares in SQM, but placed conditions on the sale that limit access to SQM secrets by board members appointed by the Chinese miner.

Tianqi's official board nominations will take place on April 25 at a shareholders meeting in Santiago, the statement said. (Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Susan Thomas and Tom Brown)

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