Danish shipping and oil group A. P. Moller-Maersk could split up into separate companies, its chairman said on Thursday after naming Soren Skou, the head of its container business, as chief executive.
Maersk shares rose more than 10 percent on the news with investors betting on a break-up and seeing the appointment as a sign of a more profound restructuring.
"The question is whether we should be a large group, or whether we should be a number of independent companies," Chairman Michael Pram Rasmussen told Danish online media Finans.
The board of directors has told Skou to "investigate the strategic and structural options to further increase agility and synergies." It plans to report on its progress by the end of the third quarter of the year.
Conglomerates like Maersk often trade at a discount to companies focused on one business, while their advocates say a broad spread of activities makes for less volatile earnings.
But Maersk is now battling on two fronts, with container shipping suffering from historic low freight rates and the oil business dealing with around a 60 percent fall in oil prices.
"It is reasonable to have different business areas within the company as long as you are able to deliver an attractive return," Otto Friedrichsen, equity strategist at Danish asset manager Formuepleje said. "But the challenge is if a broad portfolio of business areas steals focus from the overall."
Maersk Line is fighting to remain the world's leading container shipping carrier as a wave of mergers and acquisitions, particularly in Asia, creates new challengers trying to grab a bigger share of a depressed market.
Maersk revenue stood at $40 billion last year. Its shipping business of more than 600 container vessels is its biggest.
The oil division, which produced 312,000 barrels per day of oil equivalent last year, has also been hit by weak energy markets..
The company is also active in oil drilling, operates terminals and has a fleet of tankers and other marine services.
"The board wants a change of strategy for the group. There has probably been some disagreements about that, and I think that's clear from the statement," Michael Friis Jorgensen, analyst at Alm. Brand Bank in Copenhagen, said.
Maersk veteran Skou, 51, will replace Nils Smedegaard Andersen as group chief executive. Andersen, who will leave the group, had been in the job since 2007.
Skou, who has been with A.P. Moller-Maersk for 33 years, will begin in his new role on July 1, while remaining the head of Maersk Line, the company said. He became CEO of Maersk Line in 2012.
The management change comes days after the grandson of Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller, who transformed the shipping company into an international conglomerate, was appointed chief executive of the holding company behind the group.
Maersk, already a major shipping player, began producing oil in the North Sea in 1972 after being awarded the sole concession to explore for oil and gas in Danish waters.
The company is the second biggest corporate contributer to Danish government revenues after Novo Nordisk. In 2013, it paid 6.2 billion Danish crowns ($946 million) in Danish taxes, mostly from North Sea oil production revenue, according to its website.
The group, controlled by the Maersk family, was founded in 1904 by A.P. Moller and was turned into a conglomerate operating in 130 countries by his son, Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller, who had an active role in the company until he died in 2012 aged 98.
The management is expected to update investors on its strategy at a Capital Markets Day on September 22.
"It sounds to me like the company is about to reinvest in container shipping and go back to its core business," Thijs Berkelder, analyst at ABN AMRO, said.
($1 = 6.5559 Danish crowns)
(Reporting by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen & Teis Jensen, additional reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard; Editing by Keith Weir and Jane Merriman)