August 6, 2018 / 11:04 PM / 4 months ago

Sempra Energy CEO 'very optimistic' about talks with Elliott Management

NEW YORK, Aug 6 (Reuters) - Sempra Energy's Chief Executive Jeffrey Martin told investors on Monday the company was in a "constructive dialogue" with activist investor Elliott Management, which has been pushing for sweeping changes at the utility.

Speaking on a conference call after the San Diego-based firm released its second-quarter earnings, Martin said three of Sempra's directors visited Elliott's offices in New York to meet with the hedge fund and Bluescape Resources Co, a private investment fund founded by former utility executive John Wilder.

In response to an analyst's question about how the talks with Elliott were going, Martin said he was "actually quite optimistic with the tone of the conversations ... All the right people are engaged and I remain very optimistic about it."

A source close to the talks said the discussions about a potential settlement were moving slower than Elliott wanted, however. Elliott declined to comment.

Utilities based in California are already under pressure from the impact of devastating wildfires that have hit the state in the last two summers, with talk of possible legislation that could impose significant liabilities on them for damage caused by the blazes.

Fellow utility PG&E Corp has hired restructuring advisers and is considering putting one of its units in bankruptcy, Reuters reported.

Sempra has insisted since Elliott and Bluescape revealed their position in the company that while it was open to engagement, it believed its current strategy was best for creating long-term shareholder value and it remained focused on executing it. Martin repeated that sentiment on Monday.

Elliott and Bluescape, which have joined forces to influence other U.S. utilities in the last two years, disclosed a position in Sempra on June 11 and called for new directors and for the company to pursue a strategic review.

In a 50-page presentation, the investors called for selling international business lines and to split its existing business into two companies through a tax-free spinoff - one focused on utilities and the other on natural gas infrastructure.

Since then, Sempra has said it planned to sell some of its natural gas storage assets and its U.S. wind and solar power portfolio, although this decision was part of its annual review and not related to the activists.

A spokeswoman for Sempra said on Monday "we will continue to welcome shareholder input as we evaluate our portfolio and, at the appropriate time and under conducive market conditions, pursue additional opportunities to create long-term value for all shareholders." (Reporting by Liana B. Baker in New York and David French in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)

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