Greece said yesterday it planned to reduce its majority stake in oil refinery group Hellenic Petroleum to below 51 per cent. "I believe Hellenic Petroleum must move towards more privatisation, which will reduce the state's share to under 51 percent," Development Minister Nikos Christodoulakis told reporters.

"But (the state) must retain at least 35 per cent to keep Hellenic Petroleum's national characteristics," he said. Greece is in the process of reducing state holdings in a number of key companies, such as OTE Telecoms, Olympic Airways and the Public Power Corp, which is due for flotation on the Athens bourse later this year.

Hellenic Petroleum has interests in oil refining and production, the import and distribution of oil and petrochemical products and has subsidiaries in a number of areas, including natural gas. Hellenic Petroleum Chief Executive Officer Eleftherios Tzellas said a five-year 600 billion drachmas investment plan to start this year and run until 2005 would turn the company into a fully integrated vertical energy group.

"We will invest heavily in refineries, chemicals, research and exploitation and...natural gas," Tzellas told reporters. He said the company would continue investing in the Balkans and also expand to central and eastern Europe.

Profits for 2001 would be similar to last year depending on international refining margins, he said. Hellenic Petroleum reported 47 per cent growth in pretax profits in 2000 to 94.7 billion drachmas ($239 million), with group sales rising 74.8 per cent to 1.44 trillion drachmas.

Group investments increased to 121.9 billion drachmas in 2000 from 91.6 billion a year ago. The company competes with Petrola Hellas and Motor Oil in the Greek market. It enjoys an estimated market share of 56 per cent in refined product sales and controls about 52 per cent of Greece's total capacity.