London - Akzo Nobel NV appointed Maelys Castella to succeed Chief Financial Officer Keith Nichols, making her the first woman to hold the post at Europe’s largest paintmaker.

Castella, 47, will join the Amsterdam-based maker of Dulux paints on September 15 from industrial-gas producer Air Liquide SA, where she worked for 14 years and most recently was group deputy CFO, Akzo Nobel said in a statement today.

“We focused on looking for the best candidate,” Diana Abrahams, a spokeswoman for Akzo Nobel, said by telephone. “But we did look whether there was an adequate number of women available.”

Castella isn’t the first woman on the executive committee of a company that dates back to the founding of a Swedish forge in 1646 and later encompassed businesses created by Alfred Nobel, for whom the Nobel Prize is named. Marjan Oudeman served on the group as human resources chief before becoming president of Utrecht University last year. Castella will be the only female CFO at one of the 25 companies on Amsterdam’s main stock index until Geraldine Matchett takes that position at Royal DSM NV in December.

Pushing profitability

The new finance chief joins Akzo Nobel as the company reorganises to bring profitability back in line with peers such as PPG Industries. Last year, Akzo Nobel switched its focus from sales-driven to returns-driven targets, meaning it’s examining less profitable businesses and spinning them off when possible. Chief Executive Officer Ton Buechner has set goals for 2015 of an operating margin at 9 percent of sales and a 14 percent return on investment.

A French national, Castella joined Air Liquide as group financing manager in 2000. She previously worked for ELF Oil & Gas Group, in positions including financing and capital markets manager, according to Akzo.

“Maelys is a high-calibre professional who will bring key skills and capabilities to the company,” Antony Burgmans, supervisory board chairman, said in the statement. Akzo has about 50,000 employees and operations in more than 80 countries.

Akzo shares gained as much as 1.8 percent and were up 1.2 percent at 55.01 euros in Amsterdam at 10.17am, giving the company a market value of 13.4 billion euros ($18.2 billion).

Temporary CFO

The company said in January that Nichols planned to leave the paint, coatings and specialty-chemicals maker at the end of June. From July 1 until Castella takes her post, Buechner will temporarily take on the CFO role, Akzo Nobel said.

Nichols started working at the company in 2005 and became CFO in May 2008. The departing CFO helped oversee a global expansion under Buechner’s predecessor Hans Wijers up to the current efficiency drive. He also helped integrate acquisitions such as the $17 billion takeover of Imperial Chemical Industries, before supervising divestitures such as the sale of its US decorative paints unit to PPG.

Nichols, 54, hasn’t yet announced where he’ll work next or whether he’ll stay in the Netherlands. His family is based in the UK. - Bloomberg