March 21, 2018 / 5:35 PM / 9 months ago

Pressure builds on GEA for swift CEO, strategy change

* Top 10 investor calls for swift change at the top

* Shareholder groups and analysts call for external candidate

* Investor and analyst also push for further changes

* CEO Juerg Oleas due to step down in early 2019

DUESSELDORF/FRANKFURT, March 21 (Reuters) - German food processing company GEA should review its businesses and quickly replace its chief executive following a string of disappointing earnings, one of its top investors said on Wednesday, as pressure builds for speedy and sweeping change.

GEA whose machines are used to make milk products, instant coffee, and chicken nuggets is on the lookout for a new CEO after Juerg Oleas last week said he would not stand for another term, following a string of profit warnings.

Oleas is due to stay on until early 2019, but pressure is building for the board of directors to quickly start looking at external candidates to replace him.

"We believe an external candidate is the best solution for succeeding Oleas," DZ Bank analyst Thorsten Reigber said.

Sebastian Growe, an analyst with Commerzbank said a leadership change would not be enough to restore confidence and only a thorough review of the business would suffice.

One top-ten investor in the company, who declined to be named, was also pressing for a swift change at the top.

"We see this as a catalyst for a positive new chapter at the company," the investor said.

"The executive board needs to review capital allocation, limiting or desisting from acquisitions," he added.

Cost savings could come from reviewing production and procurement and by selling off low-margin businesses.

The company should also think about a meaningful share buyback, the investor said.

"A transition should be swift once a suitable replacement candidate has been identified," the investor said, adding that more external directors should be appointed to the supervisory board.

GEA is struggling to win back investor support after downgrading its earnings targets in both 2016 and 2017.

Oleas has initiated a restructuring plan but the measures GEA has taken so far will take around two years to gain traction, which is too long for some investors.

Large investors in GEA include the Kuwait Investment Office, Blackrock, MFS Investment Management, Albert Frere as well as U.S. hedge fund activist Elliott.

"GEA is a good company but profit warnings in the past speak against its ability to forecast earnings," Jella Benner-Heinacher from the German shareholder association DSW said, adding that she also supported the idea of an external candidate to take over as chief executive.

"He did not make as much progress with his restructuring as he had hoped," Dieter Tassler, a spokesman for investor association SdK said.

A GEA spokesman said the company's nomination panel aimed to find a replacement for Oleas by the end of 2018.

"There are bound to be those who say that a leadership change is not happening quickly enough," the spokesman said.

Reporting by Anneli Palmen and Tom Kaeckenhoff; Additional reporting by Edward Taylor; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle.

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