Rio Tinto makes changes at the top

January 22, 2013

Costly acquisitions, including the 2007 acquisition of Alcan caught up with Tom Albanese who was fired from his position of Rio Tinto on Jan. 17.

Rio Tinto announced the dismissal and revealed a $14 billion writedown in connection with his two most significant acquisitions, the Alcan aluminium group and Mozambican coal, Reuters reported.

Albanese will be replaced by iron ore boss Sam Walsh. Doug Ritchie, who led the acquisition of Mozambique-focused miner Riversdale, was also shown the door.

New Jersey-born, Alaska-trained Albanese had until now survived the consequences of his disastrous $38 billion acquisition of Alcan in 2007, a bruising top-of-the-market deal when Rio Tinto was under pressure from rivals to bulk up or be bought.

The deal turned bad as markets crumbled and aluminium prices slumped, battering Rio Tinto’s balance sheet, nearly forcing it into the arms of Chinese state-owned Chinalco and triggering a $15 billion rights issue. Rio has since seen years of losses in aluminium and taken billions in impairments - it had already taken an $8.9 billion charge on those struggling assets a year ago.

Walsh was welcomed by investors and analysts as a safe pair of hands, but many also questioned whether a 63-year-old veteran would be a long-term solution, raising concerns over management at a group that also announced the departure of its chief financial officer last July.

Rio had planned to shrink the aluminium arm, cutting back one of the world’s largest producers of the metal by hiving off most of its Australian and New Zealand assets.

Albanese also spearheaded a $4 billion deal to buy Mozambique-focused coal miner Riversdale in 2011, fighting off rival bidders. There, however, like many other miners in the region, Rio Tinto has struggled with the challenge of getting coal from pit to port.

Rail and port bottlenecks are the main headache for miners eager to cash in on Mozambique’s coal rush, but it could take a decade for many of the current infrastructure projects to come to fruition on a scale to meet industry demands, Reuters reported.

Anglo American is facing potential writedowns linked to its Minas Rio iron ore acquisition in Brazil, a project set to cost more than three times initial estimates. BHP Billiton, meanwhile, failed to clinch three ambitious bids under its current boss - including two tilts at Rio Tinto- but then splashed out $17 billion on two shale gas takeovers in the United States just before gas prices slumped.

Like Albanese, BHP Chief Executive Marius Kloppers forfeited his bonus last year after BHP took a $2.8 billion charge on the value of its shale gas assets.

Rio will now be led by a veteran operations man. Walsh was already in charge of the division that accounts for nearly 80 percent of profits and his appointment hints at a back-to-basics strategy that could turn Rio’s back on big deals.

Walsh joined Rio Tinto in 1991 after 20 years in the auto industry working for General Motors and Nissan Australia and rose up Rio's management ranks before being appointed to head its biggest division, iron ore, in 2004.


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