Lion Nathan, the Australian beer and wine giant, has appointed Peter Cowan an executive from rival winemaker Southcorp to the newly created post of group managing director, wine & spirits.

Cowan will leave Southcorp next week to take up his place at Lion Nathan.

The move is the latest appointment to Lion Nathan top-tier management, recruitment of highly-regarded Coca-Cola Amatil (A.CCL) Australian boss Andrew Reeves just weeks ago, who is to be in charge of the domestic beer operations. Domestic beer accounts for around 70% of Lion's total business.

Along with Walter Bugno, who oversees Lion Nathan's international beer business, Cowan and Reeves will report directly to chief executive Gordon Cairns. All three are being touted as the obvious candidates to eventually succeed him. Cairns recently extended his contract to the end of calendar 2004.

Cowan's appointment comes after Lion Nathan announced last week that it was contemplating a suitable acquisition target to fold with its Banksia Wines and Petaluma brands. The news of Cowan's departure from Southcorp is being seen as a further blow to the Aussie number one winemaker.

Analyst have been cool towards Southcorp anyway after the company participated in heavy discounting in the local wine market, which has eroded profit margins.

"This (Cowan's departure) doesn't help perceptions. Southcorp is yet to show the market that earnings momentum has been regained in the domestic market," said one Melbourne-based analyst.

Cowan was in charge of the group's Australasia/Asia wine sales and marketing.

Michael East will replace Cowan. He joined Southcorp in January after 16 years at local wine competitor Orlando Wyndham.