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Berlusconi’s passing paves way to reshape business empire

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By Elvira Pollina

MILAN (Reuters) – News of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s death on Monday sent shares in his family’s MFE-MediaForEurope broadcaster soaring, fitting a pattern of market reaction to updates on his worsening heath in recent months.

Rather than a sign of disrespect for the billionaire who made his fortune in commercial television before going into politics, the buoyancy of the shares reflects the options that could open for the company as its founder exits the scene.

MFE, 48% owned by the Berlusconi family’s Fininvest holding, runs commercial TV channels in Italy and Spain, and has built a substantial stake in Germany’s ProSieben.

Led by Pier Silvio Berlusconi, the son of the former prime minister, it has pursued European expansion from its Italian roots to try to hold its own against the U.S. streaming giants that take a growing chunk of viewers.

In a fast-changing media landscape, some investors seem to be betting that with the founder out of the picture, his heirs may be more open to seeking a partner for MFE, or selling to a larger rival.

B-shares in MFE rose as much as 10.3% on Monday and were up by 6.4% at 9.49 a.m. (0749 GMT) giving it a market capitalisation of 1.7 billion euros.

“PNEUMATIC DRILL”

The 86-year-old tycoon never publicly named a heir but people familiar with the matter told Reuters his eldest child, Marina, who already chairs Fininvest, is the most likely to take the reins.

Marina, 56, has led Fininvest’s board since 2005. In addition to MFE, the family holding company also controls publishing house Mondadori and has a big stake in asset manager Mediolanum.

Shares in Mondadori rose 1.4%.

Prior to 2005, Marina served as deputy chairperson at Fininvest for nine years.

Described by people who work with her as a tough and demanding boss, she was catapulted by her father into corporate life in her early 20s and her influence grew when he was forced to take a hands-off role following his entry into politics in 1994.

Fedele Confalonieri, a life-long friend of her father and chairman of MediaForEurope, once likened her tough business drive to a “pneumatic drill”.

A mother of two, Marina is married to a former La Scala ballet dancer.

She has seen her leadership at Fininvest grow in importance over the past decade as her father’s health faded.

In a 2018 television interview, Berlusconi said Marina was the child closest to him and that he consulted daily with her before taking any decision, which he also used to do with his mother before she passed away.

“Silvio put her down to work when she was barely more than a child,” Vittorio Giovanelli, a former director of Berlusconi’s Rete4 TV channel, wrote in a 2003 book, adding he started bringing Marina to business meetings in 1985.

“She listened and took notes for hours, she would never stop.”

INHERITANCE

Berlusconi has a total of five children from his two ex wives. Marina and Pier Silvio, born from his first marriage, both have executive roles at the family’s businesses, unlike the remaining three heirs.

He was not legally married to his partner Marta Fascina, though still on his deathbed he would call her his wife.

Under Italian law, his children have a right to inherit two thirds of his wealth in equal parts, while the deceased is free to dispose of the remaining one third how he pleases.

The way Berlusconi decided to divide up his assets among his heirs will only be known once any will is opened.

The one third of assets which can be assigned freely can be used to pick a leader for the Fininvest companies provided other assets are sufficient to compensate the others, said Emanuele Lucchini Guastalla, a law professor at Milan’s Bocconi University.

(Writing by Keith Weir and Valentina Za)

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