Alessandro Profumo has sparred with some of the toughest figures in Italian finance in his repeated -- and so far unsuccessful -- attempts to pull off big bank mergers. Now, as the man leading Unicredito Italiano SpA's bid to buy Germany's HVB Group AG, his skills will be tested yet again.

The two sides are expected to announce the deal, valued at about $20 billion, as soon as next week. It would rank as Europe's largest cross-border banking acquisition. Still, both sides, which have confirmed that they are in talks, face some high hurdles in getting the deal past shareholders and powerful unions at the German bank.

Profumo, 48, is well aware of the perils of pulling off a cross-border European bank merger. In 1999, he tried to merge with Spanish lender Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA. But Italy's central bank chief, Antonio Fazio, worried that BBVA's bigger market value would turn the deal into a Spanish takeover of an Italian bank, blocked the move.

In 2001, Profumo tried again, proposing a merger with Commerzbank AG of Germany. But Unicredito's stock tanked as news of the deal leaked, forcing Profumo to back out.

Already, the deal with HVB is facing questions from the German bank's unions and employee representatives, who hold 10 seats on the bank's 21-member supervisory board and want a say in how the transaction is consummated.

"In principle, we are not opposed to a marriage with Unicredito. But we want to have a say in the size of the dowry," said Hanns-Peter Kreuser, an employee representative on the supervisory board. "We employees and union members do not want to be handed a finished takeover document but want to influence discussions." HVB declined to comment on his remarks.

People who know Profumo say that, even if the HVB negotiations fall through, he is likely to stay in the thick of Europe's increasingly hectic cross-border deal frenzy. Even though his previous attempts have failed, he has always come back.

Profumo is convinced Europe will evolve into a unified market for financial services, sidelining the large national players that haven't adapted, say people familiar with his thinking. Like Emilio Botin-Sanz, chairman of Banco Santander Central Hispano SA, which acquired Britain's Abbey National PLC last year, Profumo is one of several European bankers trying to punch down the walls enclosing the continent's lending markets. He "has a strategic vision in mind, and he has been following it for 10 years," said Stefano Caselli, a professor of banking and finance at Milan's Bocconi University.

Profumo is the son of a well-to-do Genovese industrialist. He married at 19, while still in college, and took a job in a provincial Italian bank, where he toiled for a decade, starting with tasks such as stamping documents. He spent his nights studying for exams, graduated and rose through the ranks at the bank to become head branch manager.

Eventually, he landed a job at elite consultancy McKinsey & Co.

In Italy, many of the "McKinsey Boys," as they were called, wound up as chief executives, including Corrado Passera, chief executive of Banca Intesa SpA, Italy's second-largest bank by market value after Unicredito. After stints in consulting and with an insurance firm, Profumo joined Unicredito -- then called Credito Italiano SpA -- in 1994 as deputy general manager. He took over as chief executive in 1997, becoming one of the youngest top managers in Italian finance.

Profumo quickly set about building up the bank's scale by acquiring a trio of small Italian lenders in 1998. It added two more the next year and began exploring opportunities in Eastern Europe.

The plain-spoken banker is seen as a fiercely independent manager.

This year, some of the bank's major shareholders tried to rein in his power by demanding greater consultation in management decisions, but Profumo successfully resisted their attempt.

Alessandra Galloni in Rome, Edward Taylor in Frankfurt and Jason Singer in London contributed to this report.

Unicredito Italiano's chief executive, Alessandro Profumo, has failed in attempts to pull off other mergers.