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Bill Doyle, CEO, Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan. ANTHONY JENKINS (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Bill Doyle, CEO, Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan. ANTHONY JENKINS (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

THE LUNCH

Bill Doyle: A passion for feeding a growing world Add to ...

Almost a year to the day after Ottawa called a halt to the bruising 100-day Potash War, its victorious general has little interest in reliving old stories from the battlefield.

“It was an experience,” Bill Doyle allows when asked about BHP Billiton’s foiled bid to acquire Canada’s potash champion, Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan, where he has been chief executive officer since 1999.

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But what about the nationalist outcry against the deal? The duel with BHP’s Marius Kloppers, whose hostile takeover attempt thrust Potash Corp. into a global spotlight? The stinging criticisms of Mr. Doyle’s decision to make his home in Chicago? Ottawa’s dramatic, 11th-hour rejection of the takeover bid?

“A distraction,” he says with a dismissive wave of his hand during our lunch at Truffles, a small bistro in downtown Saskatoon that specializes in local produce.

“People said a lot of things. Does that bother me?” He pauses before answering the question to look out a window overlooking 21st Street. Jabbing his finger toward the street, the silver-haired executive clenches his jaw and lowers his voice to a steely rumble: “My skin is thicker than the bark on that tree.”

The leafy metaphor is more apt than Mr. Doyle probably realizes. A call to Saskatoon’s city hall reveals that the thin, pale tree he singled out is an American Elm. Like Mr. Doyle, it is a foreigner. Just as the elm import was planted last year as part of a downtown urban renewal project, Mr. Doyle was recruited from a U.S. competitor in 1987 to revive a moribund and unprofitable Crown corporation.

The Illinois-born executive, who twice rejected a job offer from a U.S. potash company in the mid-1970s because “I couldn’t see myself out in the middle of Iowa selling fertilizer,” has over his 37-year career become one of the greatest proselytizers of the soft-pink mineral that is one of the Canadian Prairies’ greatest natural resources.

He eventually accepted a global sales job with International Minerals and Chemical Corp. (now part of Mosaic Co.) to see the world. His love of travel and unswerving faith in potash’s fertilizing power, which he calls a “noble business,” has helped elevate potash from a poorly understood mineral to a vital ingredient for boosting food supply.

There wasn’t much nobility to be found at Potash Corp. 24 years ago when Mr. Doyle was recruited. He found a sickly provincial ward so crippled by years of losses that when he arrived, he says, the Saskatchewan government “was going broke.” Today it’s is a publicly traded company that has parlayed an ambitious global sales strategy and unique marketing co-operative into a global giant that boasts seven consecutive years of profits and generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually in royalties and taxes to the province.

Until last year, Mr. Doyle’s foreign status wasn’t much of an issue. Although he spends most of his time outside the province, moved his wife and three children from Saskatoon to a home in Winnetka, Ill., in 2002 and expanded an executive office near Chicago, local debate was subdued.

That changed last year when BHP came gunning for Potash Corp. Mr. Doyle’s U.S. tilt was ammunition in the hands of an Australian giant hoping to subdue a nationalist backlash. How could anyone object to a foreign takeover when several of Potash’s most senior executives were absentee landlords?

“Lies, half-truths and rumours,” retorts Mr. Doyle, blaming the misinformation on “the public relations campaign that was undertaken by the other side.” If Mr. Doyle has a home, he says, it is somewhere up in the air because he spends more than 200 days of the year travelling to visit foreign clients and governments who buy 95 per cent of the company’s potash for its fertilizing qualities.

To underline the point, he explains he has just returned from a six-week international tour, during which “there were no Saturdays” because he was so busy meeting with clients and governments. “It is really quite unbelievable how much I travel,” he says.

Complaints that other Potash executives moved south of the border are also misguided, he says, because they are constantly shuttling between Canada and the U.S., which accounts for 40 per cent of the company’s sales.

The thing to focus on is that the company is expanding, Mr. Doyle says. By 2013, its Saskatoon head office will increase its staff by 12 per cent to 2,500, slightly more than half its total global workforce of 5,400.

The growth is being driven by a $7.8-billion expansion of Potash Corp.’s Canadian mining properties that are set to nearly double the company’s annual output to 17.1 million tonnes by 2015. “No company is going to grow faster than Potash Corp. in the next four years,” he says.

The investment is part of a $180-billion global expansion by major potash companies racing to add new capacity for a world that needs more nutrients to feed a rapidly growing population.

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