Dryblower on the lonely (and short) life of a CEO

LIFE at the top is never easy, as the chief executives of the world’s biggest mining companies are finding out. Unless Dryblower is misreading his tea leaves, quite a few lesser leaders will soon discover this as an industry-wide “chief executive cull” begins.
Dryblower on the lonely (and short) life of a CEO Dryblower on the lonely (and short) life of a CEO Dryblower on the lonely (and short) life of a CEO Dryblower on the lonely (and short) life of a CEO Dryblower on the lonely (and short) life of a CEO


Tim Treadgold

The problem for CEOs in every mining business, from the biggest to the smallest, is that a number of issues are conspiring against them – many which put them in the firing line.

Low mineral prices are the obvious difficulty at the moment, though its just the start of a list that features:

Higher costs, especially for labour and capital equipment.

Increased taxes and other government charges.

More complex government rules and regulations.

Tight financial markets for debt and equity.

Investor demands that management lift profits in a climate of falling margins, and

Failure to hit self-imposed CEO performance targets.

That final point means that the deals CEOs negotiated in better times, at the start of their contracts, are now the noose around the neck of their careers.

Investors, even if they know that financial failure is not the fault of the CEO, will always demand a sacrifice, preferably human.

Every CEO contract will be slightly different, but most include performance measures such as delivering acceptable shareholder returns ¬– either in the share price, gross profit or annual dividend – and the expansion of the business through the development of growth options.

Doing all that at a time of low metal prices and falling profits is proving to be virtually impossible, not that impatient investors are in the mood for excuses. This can be seen by their voting patterns at annual meetings, where director remuneration deals are attracting a high proportion of negative votes.

Take Cynthia Carroll’s experience, which led to the announcement of her departure as CEO of Anglo American earlier this month. She had not really done much wrong, but what she did right was drowned by the flood of negative news.

No one shed a tear for Carroll because she will retire rich and with a reputation as the first woman to run a global miner.

But what happened to Carroll is a guide to what appears to be happening to BHP Billiton boss Marius Kloppers. It’s also likely to happen to every CEO with a share price less than what its major shareholders believe to be acceptable – and that’s just about every mining and mine-service company in the world.

The fate of Nick Bowen, former CEO of contracting firm Macmahon Holdings, is another case study of the pressures building after two tough years of rising costs and falling commodity prices, which have slashed margins and made it difficult to operate profitably.

Whether there was anything Bowen could have done to avoid a hefty profit fall is irrelevant in the eyes of institutional fund managers, who have their own problems meeting the demands of clients who what high returns at a time of historically low interest rates.

Despite running a business many times the size of Macmahon, Kloppers is under exactly the same pressures as Bowen – a sluggish share price, declining profits and a track record of incomplete or unsatisfactory deals.

It is the universal nature of the pressures being experienced by all CEOs that caused Dryblower to wonder whether we have reached a turning point in the mining market that will cause a wholesale shake-out of the incumbent occupants of corner offices across the industry.

That question has been partly answered by the clean-out that appears to be underway at the highest levels of the industry, with Carroll and Kloppers first to head for the exit. They are followed by Mick Davis at Xstrata, with Rio Tinto’s Tom Albanese wondering about his future.

Individually, they are talented people who rose to the top. But collectively, they are all at or near their use-by date.

It is no different at the bottom of the CEO pool, where small exploration and mining companies are under pressure to deliver what investors want – success.

In fact, it’s a little tougher than that. It is success at any cost, no matter who gets hurt in the process.

Not many mining company CEOs can claim to have been very successful over the past two years. While failure may not be their fault, there is still the problem of having taken the job and the money, which means now is a time to be accountable.

This article first appeared in ILN's sister publication MiningNews.net.

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