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Martin Ebner Forced To Divest Investment Funds

by Ulrika Lomas,, Brussels

02 August 2002

Swiss financial phenomenon Martin Ebner, credited with an almost single-handed creation of an 'equity culture' among the conservative Swiss, has been forced by bearish equity markets to retreat from ownership of the funds which held large parts of his empire.

Ebner’s BZ Holding Group decided on Wednesday to sell all of its registered shares in its listed investment funds to state-guaranteed Zurich Cantonal Bank. The four funds, Pharma Vision, BK Vision, Spezialitaten Vision and Stillhalter Vision, have equity holdings worth about SFr3 billion, but the price paid by the Bank was not disclosed.

During the 1990s Ebner popularised investment in shares as a way of beating low interest rates on savings accounts. He founded the BZ group in 1985, and during the 1990s used it as a vehicle to build up holdings in a series of major Swiss companies, often then seeking to shake up sleepy managements by encouraging shareholder activism - something new and unwelcome to staid, inward-looking Swiss corporates.

In one of the most famous of these spats, in 1995 Ebner became one of the main players in the discussions over a merger between Swiss bank giants, UBS and SBC. As a major SBC shareholder, he fought the proposal that the two banks should issue one unified share and was only narrowly defeated.

In 1999 Ebner became president of Alusuisse, but after just a few months sold out to Alcan, netting SFr2.3 billion. Moving on to ABB, Ebner forced changes in management, but in subsequent years his investments have performed poorly.

Although Ebner's image will be thoroughly tarnished by the eventual failure of his strategy - of his assorted 'visions' - it's nonetheless true that he has contributed to long-needed modernisation of the Swiss financial markets and corporate ethos. And it is thought that the sale of the funds will have put Ebner himself back into a secure financial position.

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