MANY people have lost more than their job at the deadly delta of the Zambezi River, but after the events of recent days, Africa’s third biggest river can claim the career of Tom Albanese among its scalps.
February and March are among the most dangerous months in this part of Mozambique, with tropical cyclones creating devastating floods for the people who live along the Zambezi’s banks.
It was around March last year that Albanese, the Rio Tinto chief executive, got the first indications that this mighty river was starting to pull him under, too.
The 55-year-old geologist turned corporate leader had wanted Rio Tinto to use the Zambezi as a transport route for coal coming out of proposed mines upstream.
The idea to dredge and barge the Zambezi was not conceived by Albanese; the plan had been developed by Riversdale Mining, the Australian junior that Rio acquired in early 2011.
But by approving and pursuing that $US3.8 billion acquisition of Riversdale, Albanese and his lieutenant Doug Ritchie had taken ownership of the plan, which was soon to strike trouble in the form of Paulo Zucula.
Zucula, serving as Mozambique’s Transport Minister, stunned Rio in March 2012 when he declared that the river barging plan was not acceptable.
”As proposed, it is not do-able,” he told Reuters at the time.
”Every four years we have problems with flooding and killing people. So if you are going to dredge the river (and) expand the banks, we will be in trouble.”
Rio remained confident that the impasse could be resolved by talks with the government; it believed the plan to export 25 million tonnes of coking coal from Mozambique by 2020 was still feasible.
But right there and then the ”end game” for Albanese’s tenure as chief executive had begun.
Reflecting upon the Mozambique blunder, Pengana Capital’s resources fund manager Tim Schroeders said Rio should have been alert to the transport challenges from day one.
”The coal was there, there wasn’t really conjecture about the coal,” he said. ”The big issue in the market, and why they got Riversdale at the price they got it, was always around transport and getting that coal out to market in sufficient quantities to ensure economies of scale.
”Clearly the i’s weren’t dotted and the t’s not crossed.”
Albanese’s troubles were not confined to Mozambique. He committed a far more expensive blunder on the eve of the global financial crisis in 2007 when he approved a $US38 billion acquisition of Canadian aluminium business Alcan.
Albanese claimed that the purchase would create $US1.1 billion in ”annual synergies”, and Rio would enjoy rising profit margins from a sector that was about to face high cost pressures.
He was right about the cost pressures, but he didn’t pick that China would soon flood the market with cheap aluminium by running scores of smelters at a loss for years, killing off rivals in the developed world that are hamstrung by the inconvenience of needing to make a profit.
Not only would the Alcan deal fail to deliver benefits, it weighed Rio down with up to $US40 billion in debt, which became a much bigger problem when the financial crisis struck in 2008.
After flirting with the idea of a controversial deal with Chinese state-owned business Chinalco, Rio eventually escaped its troubles by raising $US15 billion through a capital raising.
Many pundits have expressed amazement that Albanese wasn’t sacked after the Alcan debacle, which led to write-downs of $US7.9 billion in 2009 and a further $US8.9 billion in 2012, and is set to cause impairments of close to $US11 billion when the next lot of reports are revealed next month.
Most believe Albanese survived only because his chairman at the time, Paul Skinner, did not.
Skinner was replaced by South African Jan du Plessis in mid-2009, and the new chairman indicated at his first public outing in Australia that he intended to give Albanese a second chance.
”If, in the world today, we are going to be holding accountable every single director and every single investor who bought assets or who made mistakes at the height of the market, there won’t be much left of us,” he told Rio’s annual meeting in 2009.
While many people saw that as a ”get-out-of-jail card” for Albanese, Schroeders said that it was more like a first warning.
”Du Plessis coming into that role as chairman really supported Tom Albanese and put to rest conjecture around his longevity as CEO. But by coming in and backing him he drew a clear line in the sand,” he said this week.
”Anything beyond that point was going to be on his watch, and he was going to deal with any indiscretion severely, and that is clearly what has happened.
”The Mozambique disaster is probably the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
But it would be wrong to cast Albanese’s 5½ years in charge as a period of failures alone.
Under his watch Rio managed to avoid BHP Billiton’s acquisitive clutches in 2008, and the company’s most important and lucrative division – iron ore – performed brilliantly.
Emboldened by the backing of his new chairman, Albanese set about increasing the company’s exposure to a Mongolian copper deposit called Oyu Tolgoi, which was held by Canada’s Ivanhoe Mines.
He had initiated Rio’s initial investment in Ivanhoe while serving as Rio’s global resources chief in 2006, and he grew that stake until the company had majority control of Ivanhoe and Oyu Tolgoi in 2012.
”He had the balls to take on the Oyu Tolgoi deal and internally [at Ivanhoe] we felt that him doing that deal saved his bacon the first time around,” said Peter Reeve, the former chief executive of Ivanhoe’s Australian offshoot.
”A lot of other people wanted it: BHP Billiton wanted it, the Chinese wanted it, loads of other people wanted it because it’s a great project. But he got it, he nailed it.”
After growing up in New Jersey, Albanese studied geology and finance in Alaska, and Reeve – the new boss of explorer Havilah Resources – said the pursuit of Oyu Tolgoi showed just how good Albanese’s grasp of exploration was.
”If you are a good minerals person you understand that the only way to create real wealth is to get the discoveries done – he has a deep understanding of exploration because he came from that as a source,” said Reeve.
”He bought along a very cloistered and dud system – that being the dumb part of the Rio Tinto bureaucracy – he bought that along and made them do that deal with Oyu Tolgoi.
”He was still thinking as an explorationist.
”There was a view within Ivanhoe that Tom did a lot of very good work getting that deal done and I know [Ivanhoe founder Robert Friedland] had the opinion that it was a good effort to get a big systematic company like that over the line.”
Oyu Tolgoi is due to come into production in June, and some speculate that it could produce copper and gold for a century.
But success in one part of the developing world couldn’t offset Rio’s problems in Africa over the past 12 months, as Mozambique and an iron ore project in Guinea [Simandou] began to fall apart.
A recent audit of the coal resource in Mozambique reduced the volumes that Rio now believes are recoverable from that site, compounding the existing problems around a transport solution.
Rio warned in November that its annual review of asset-carrying values was likely to lead to impairments, and those numbers were delivered to the board at its meeting in Rio’s offices in the London district of Paddington this week.
The temperature in London has barely climbed above zero this week, but the combination of problems in Mozambique would have left Albanese feeling even colder. Du Plessis is believed to have conveyed the decision to Albanese on Wednesday with a heavy heart that reflects the strong bond that has developed between the men.
Officially it was dubbed a ”mutual agreement”, but there is little doubt it was a sacking.
The news was published before the start of London trading on Thursday, which was shortly after 6pm on Thursday on Australia’s east coast.
Also in London this week was Sam Walsh, the man who was announced as the new chief executive.
The 63-year-old grandfather will relocate from his home in Perth – where he runs Rio’s iron-ore unit – to the UK, where he will begin one of the most demanding jobs in world business.
”You have to sell your beautiful house in Perth with your lifestyle and move to London with all these pissant analysts chasing you,” said one veteran of the Australian resources scene, who has known Walsh for years.
Albanese, speaking through a Rio Tinto press release, expressed confidence that Walsh’s ”calibre and values” would ensure he would conduct himself in ”outstanding fashion”.
”While I leave the business in good shape in many respects, I fully recognise that accountability for all aspects of the business rests with the CEO,” he said.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.