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Alessandro Profumo

Alessandro Profumo, UniCredito Italiano CEO, once donned a medieval costume at a staff meeting to lampoon Italy's dusty banking practices. Many Italian businesspeople see Profumo as the country's most innovative banker. Why? In six years, he made a weak regional bank, Credito Italiano, into a European contender with assets of $150 billion, triggering a shakeout among Italy's banks.

UniCredito Italiano--the merger of Credito Italiano and Unicredito--is the most profitable euro zone bank, pretax. Operating profit rose 26.7% in 2000 to $4 billion, return on equity 20.8%. "UniCredito is becoming one of the euro benchmarks for bank performance," says Merrill Lynch Global Securities' Simone Concetti.

When Italian bank authorities stymied UniCredito's merger with Spain's Banco Bilbao Vizcaya (BBV) in 1999, an unfazed Profumo bought four Eastern Europe banks for $2 billion. He nabbed Pioneer Group Inc., a Boston mutual fund company, for $1.2 billion, bulking up Europlus, UniCredito's asset management shop in Dublin.

Profumo wants Unicredito to be able to take on all comers. "When I look into the eyes of the competition, I don't want to be staring at someone over 7 feet tall," says the banker, who is 6 foot 4. No chance of that.

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