Italy’s largest infrastructure fund F2i plans to sell up to 49 percent of F2i Aeroporti, which holds stakes in some of the country’s main airports, in a deal that sources said could raise up to 500 million euros.

Mauro Maia, president of F2i Aeroporti, told Reuters that the fund had appointed banks HSBC and UniCredit for the planned sale, which could pave the way for F2i to raise its stake in some of its most prized investments, such as Milan’s SEA airport operator.

Maia declined to discuss valuations, but three sources familiar with negotiations said the deal could value the holding company of airports in cities such as Milan, Turin and Naples at around 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion).

“There is already strong interest from international investors, including cash-rich players in Asia and the Middle East,” said Maia, adding that preliminary documentation had been sent to more than 50 sovereign wealth funds (SWF), pension and infrastructure funds worldwide.

Maia said F2i was seeking a long-term equity partner, adding: “We are offering a qualified minority stake and, together with a partner, we would continue to further consolidate the market.”

The deal would be the fourth-largest airport transaction in Italy over the past 20 years after a Gemina-Atlantia merger in 2013 and ownership reshuffles at Rome airport in 2007 and 2000, according to Thomson Reuters data.

A stake sale within F2i Aeroporti comes as Italy’s newly elected Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose government owns a minority stake in F2i via state-owned investment fund Cassa Depositi e Prestiti, attempts to slash a 2 trillion euro debt pile by selling air-traffic controller Enav and other state-owned assets.

F2i Aeroporti represents the largest airport platform in Italy, with 35 percent of air passenger traffic and almost 70 percent of the air cargo market.

A 49 percent stake sale would help F2i raise about 450 million to 500 million euros, said three sources familiar with the deal who asked not to be named.

Auction Hammer Raised

F2i’s airport investments reported combined, proforma core profit of 254 million euros in 2013, on proforma revenues of 1 billion euros, according to Maia. Debts stood at around 545 million euros.

The sale will be structured as a two-part auction, with F2i Aeroporti providing more detailed data to interested parties over the coming weeks.

Non-binding offers are expected in July and a second round of binding bids will follow between September and October, Maia said, with a view to signing a deal by the end of the year.

The winner of the auction will be able to co-invest with F2i to raise the fund’s current 36 percent stake in SEA with the aim of taking eventual control if willing sellers are found.

Stake-building in the other airports under the F2i umbrella is also on the cards, Maia said.

SEA, which is 55 percent owned by the city of Milan and ranks as Italy’s second-largest airport operator by passenger numbers and Europe’s ninth-largest, is the jewel in the crown of F2i’s portfolio.

F2i raised its stake in SEA to 36 percent in 2012 after the airport operator, which runs Milan’s Malpensa and Linate airports, scrapped a market listing plan in Milan because of insufficient investor interest.

It also owns 54 percent of Turin airport operator SAGAT and 70 percent of Naples airport operator GESAC, and indirectly holds minority stakes in Bergamo and Bologna airports.

These airports handled a combined traffic of 50 million passengers in 2013, with Italy ranking as the fifth European market by passenger numbers.

F2i paved the way for the transaction earlier this year by transferring its interests in SEA and SAGAT into F2i Aeroporti.

Airport valuations typically range between 10 and 14 times core profit, the sources said, though recent multiples have been higher.

In 2013 Stansted Airport was sold to Manchester Airports Group for 1.5 billion pounds, representing a multiple close to 16, similar to the 2012 purchase of Edinburgh Airport by Global Infrastructure Partners for 807 million pounds. (Reuters)