By Silvia Aloisi
MILAN (Reuters) - UniCredit (UCG.MI), Italy's largest bank by assets, has submitted a preliminary offer to buy Poland's Bank BGZ (WSE:BGZ) and is sounding investors out on the possibility of selling its Ukrainian unit, Chief Executive Federico Ghizzoni said.
Ghizzoni, who earlier this year sold Unicredit's Kazakh operation, said this was part of the bank's strategy to strengthen its presence in countries it considers "core" and leave those markets where it sees little opportunity for growth.
"We made an offer on a Polish bank, we are still in the early stages," Ghizzoni told a group of foreign reporters in comments embargoed for Thursday morning. He later identified the bank as BGZ, which is owned by Dutch lender Rabobank and could be worth around $1 billion.
Rabobank (RABO.UL), the Netherlands' largest retail bank, said in June it was "looking at strategic options" for BGZ, after media reports said it might sell its 98 percent stake this year in a deal that could be worth nearly $1 billion.
A spokesman said the offer, made through UniCredit's Polish unit Pekao (PEO.WA), was not binding because the sale process was in a preliminary phase.
Other banks potentially interested in BGZ are France's Credit Agricole (ACA.PA), BNP Paribas (BNP.PA), Dutch bank ING (INGA.AS) and Poland's Getin Noble Bank (GNB.WA), according to sources familiar with the situation and Polish media reports.
Ghizzoni said UniCredit had not yet taken a decision on the sale of Ukrainian lender Ukrsotsbank, which it is in the process of merging with a smaller local unit, UniCredit Bank. UniCredit bought the lender during an expansion push in 2008 in a deal worth 1.5 billion euros.
"We are sounding out the market, it is not easy to leave countries like these. It took us two years to sell in Kazakhstan," he said.
Ghizzoni said the bank was also looking at growth opportunities in China, where it may open more branches with the aim of helping its own corporate clients who want to expand there and also attracting Chinese investments into Europe.
Turning to his bank's investors, he said UniCredit had a "very balanced" shareholder structure and that he did not have problems with the Italian banking foundations that hold 12 percent of the bank.
He made the comments just days after the ousting of Intesa Sanpaolo's (ISP.MI) chief executive Enrico Cucchiani, who lost the support of Intesa's foundations, the not-for-profit entities in Italy which have close ties to local government.
"I have not had problems with the foundations so far," Ghizzoni said, adding the foundations at UniCredit had in the past accepted a dilution of their stake in the bank to let it expand.
UniCredit has a more diversified investor base than Intesa, including foreign shareholders such as Abu Dhabi investor vehicle Aabar, London-based private equity fund Pamplona and German insurer Allianz (ALVG.DE).
BANK OF ITALY STAKES
Ghizzoni also said that a proposed revaluation of stakes domestic lenders hold in the Bank of Italy would have a "positive but limited" impact on the banks' own capital base.
"It would not change the capital situation radically," he said.
Intesa Sanpaolo is the largest shareholder in the Bank of Italy with a 30 percent stake. UniCredit has 22 percent.
(Editing by Greg Mahlich)