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Former Barrick Gold Corp. CEO Aaron Regent speaks during the company’s annual general meeting of shareholders in Toronto on May 2, 2012. (MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS)
Former Barrick Gold Corp. CEO Aaron Regent speaks during the company’s annual general meeting of shareholders in Toronto on May 2, 2012. (MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS)

Barrick shakeup highlights risk fears Add to ...

The dismissal of Barrick Gold Corp’s chief executive officer over the company’s long-stagnant stock price signals deepening concerns that a year-old, multibillion dollar bet on an African copper project has turned sour.

Toronto-based Barrick, the world’s biggest gold miner, said on Wednesday it ousted president and CEO Aaron Regent less than four years into the job, a period during which the company’s shares barely moved on the Toronto Stock Exchange despite a huge rally in the price of gold.

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“We are fully committed to maximizing shareholder value, but have been disappointed with our share price performance,” said Peter Munk, who founded Barrick and remains the driving force of the company.

Barrick made a bold move into the copper market last year with its $7.3 billion acquisition of Equinox Minerals Ltd., but the deal alienated many investors who saw it as an expensive departure from the company’s focus on gold. Barrick shares dropped sharply on news of the deal.

Fears that Barrick had adopted a risky strategy were compounded in May, when it reported higher-than-expected copper production costs at the Lumwana project, the key asset acquired it acquired in Zambia’s copper belt with the Equinox deal. Now, with copper prices well below record levels of a year ago, there are growing worries that Barrick will take a substantial hit on the acquisition.

Mining companies around the world are grappling with skyrocketing costs on megaprojects embarked on during the so-called commodities super-cycle that began over a decade ago. The industry engaged in a frenzy of high-priced takeovers in recent years to pursue growth opportunities. But the rush to deploy cash and get new deposits into development as fast as possible has led to mistakes, with cost over-runs and delays now common travails.

“They have a huge capital blowout there,” said a mining industry source familiar with the situation. “They will have to write a lot of it off.” A Barrick spokesman declined to comment, and Mr. Regent wasn’t available for comment.

In February of this year Kinross Gold Corp, Canada’s third-largest gold company, announced a $2.49-billion writedown on the Tasiast gold mine in Mauritania that it acquired under a $7.1 billion takeover in August 2010.

George Topping, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus in Toronto, said the CEO change at Barrick may be just the first announcement of several.

“I am wondering whether there’s potential that there is more bad news in the pipeline that may have prompted this move,” he said. “I think Equinox is worse than they thought ... it could be that they are looking for a fall guy for the Equinox transaction.” Barrick is also reviewing costs at its huge Pascua-Lama gold project in South America.

Barrick stock is down more than 27 percent from a 52-week high in September, and was briefly off more than 33 percent. On Wednesday the shares were off 3.8 percent at $40.45 per share.

The declines mirror a fall in other gold company stocks as risk-averse investors seek exposure to booming gold prices through exchange traded funds, shielded from shocks like the massive cost over-runs in the mining industry.

Mr. Munk, who built Barrick from humble beginnings as an immigrant from Hungary, has a history of being unforgiving when the company’s stock price slides.

He removed another chief executive officer, Randall Oliphant, in early 2003 after the company surprised investors with a warning that 2002 profits would be lower than expected as costs rose at some mines.

“There is an obsession with shareholder value at Barrick and the board was getting the sense that this was not a paramount concern,” one person familiar with the company said on Wednesday.

The market was still shocked by news that Mr. Regent, considered a major catch for Barrick when he was hired as CEO in December 2008, would be replaced because he was viewed very favourably at senior levels of the company and there were no signs of a rift.

Mr. Regent came to Barrick after a career in base metals, but the Equinox bid - which trumped an offer from China’s Minmetals Resources - was championed mostly by Mr. Munk, insiders say, adding to confusion about the management shuffle.

Mr. Munk may have telegraphed the move at the annual general meeting last month, when he publicly chastised Mr. Regent, even as he congratulated him for another profitable quarter.

“This is a public company and the ultimate test of performance, the ultimate test of your job and my job and the board’s job is to produce adequate returns to shareholders,” he said.

Barrick appointed Chief Financial Officer Jamie Sokalsky to the role, who also replaced Mr. Regent on the company’s board of directors. In a move some insiders said might signal the beginning of a succession plan by 84-year-old Mr. Munk, Barrick also said it appointed John L.Thornton, currently a company director, to the post of co-chairman.

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