By  on April 27, 2007

PONZANO VENETO, Italy — Benetton Group SpA executives said Thursday the company wants to grow its international presence in South America, Asia and possibly even Afghanistan.

"We know this country only as a place of war, unfortunate things and complications, but there is a part of it that is almost inexplicably…thinking about normal life," chairman Luciano Benetton said following the company's annual meeting to approve 2006 accounts.

"[Despite the ongoing war there] people also have to eat, to work, maybe even entertain themselves and have less sadness in their lives," he said. Benetton said businesspeople in the country have approached the Italian company about opening stores.

Benetton didn't specify a time line for the brand's foray into the country, but a company spokesman said contacts with potential partners are still in preliminary stages. The Italian company has a history of opening stores in politically charged areas, including war-torn Sarajevo, Cuba and, much more recently, Iran.

Elsewhere, Benetton said the company is scouting potential opportunities to produce clothes in South America for local markets to avoid shipping costs and import duties.

"I think that this is an area we can develop," he said. "We are deciding which countries are best suited [for this project]."

The company is also seeking to grow its underdeveloped men's wear business. The company recently increased the size and scope of its men's collection to include more coats, jackets, sweaters and accessories. Benetton is planning to start rolling out dedicated men's only stores, initially in Italy, sometime this year, a spokesman said.

At the meeting, shareholders signed off on Benetton's full-year 2006 accounts. Net profit rose 11.7 percent to 125 million euros, or $157.5 million, as reported last month. Revenue grew 8.3 percent to 1.91 billion euros, or $2.41 billion. Dollar figures have been converted at average exchange rates for the period.

"I think right now that I can be optimistic regarding the upcoming months of this year," Benetton said, citing strong collections and products. "We have all the needed characteristics to grow and develop ourselves."

Following the shareholders meeting, Benetton's board met briefly to approve Gerolamo Caccia Dominioni as chief executive officer. The former Warner Music executive will start his new job June 1.The board also promoted Alessandro Benetton, 43, to the role of executive vice president. He was vice president previously. The move nearly equalizes his boardroom clout with that of his father, Luciano.

As reported, Luciano Benetton is grooming his son to take the over the helm of the business. Father and son jointly addressed the press after the shareholders meeting. The elder Benetton referred to his son as his equal in business terms. At the same time, patriarch Luciano said he still doesn't know when he'll fully retire and relinquish his chairman title to his son.

"No, we have never actually spoken about it to tell you the truth," Luciano Benetton said. "But Alessandro has more or less the same powers as that of the chairman."

Alessandro also downplayed the issue of titles and stressed it's more important to focus attention on sound management of the company.

"Each person must bring his or her talents to the table to enrich the company as much as possible," he said.

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