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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 ...

Mr. Doyle’s knows the food math by heart. The global population is 7 billion and every year it grows by 75 million people. To keep feeding everyone from a limited supply of arable land, he says the world will need 70-per-cent more food by 2050. That increased yield can only happen with increased fertilization.

“We have a real obligation to feed the world,” he says.

If there is a flaw in Mr. Doyle’s noble vision, it is that many of the world’s farmers and governments, notably in China and India, think potash companies are greedy. Potash Corp., which accounts for 20 per cent of global capacity, gets much of the heat because its Canpotex marketing alliance with competitors Mosaic and Agrium Inc. gives it enormous clout to set what some customers argue are unreasonably rich prices.

The complaints turned to outrage in 2008 when potash prices soared to a peak of $875 (U.S.) a tonne.

“It was too high,” Mr. Doyle concedes. He blames the “bravado” of Russian potash players, relatively new to the global potash market, for raising prices “too far, too fast” in 2008. Although prices have come down from their nose-bleed levels to about $475 a tonne, major buyers such as India are still squawking. India has effectively boycotted purchases from most major potash suppliers, including Potash Corp.

Although he describes the impasse with India as “a tragedy,” he said the days of brinksmanship are fading.

“The challenges of food production are so great that I think you’re going to see less game-playing going forward. It is important, we have to grow, there is a challenge here.”

With such a huge global appetite for potash, does Mr. Doyle worry that another suitor may come calling?

“Who knows?” he says with a shrug. “We don’t think that way.”

A few minutes after answering this question, he realizes he is late for his next trip. He has a flight to catch for a meeting in Calgary. Later in the day, he will return to Saskatoon for a prostate cancer fundraiser.

“People don’t know what it takes to run this business,” he says over his shoulder, as he heads for the door.

_____________

BILL DOYLE

Roots

Born 1950, Highland Park, Ill.

Middle of five children. His father, a chemist, was head of R&D at Colgate-Palmolive.

Beginnings

BA in government and music from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Supported himself through school as a bartender and golf caddy.

Disillusioned after volunteering in Chicago for George McGovern’s ill-fated 1972 presidential campaign, he bought a BMW motorcycle and rode through 37 countries in 13 months. He survived by camping and working on farms in exchange for food.

Career

1974 – Joined International Minerals and Chemical Corp as roving global potash salesman.

1987 – Joined Potash Corp. as president of sales arm.

1998 – Promoted chief operating officer.

1999 – Named CEO.

Personal

Lives with his wife Kathy in Winnetka, Ill. They have three grown children.

They have a condo in Saskatoon and vacation home in the Caribbean.

He is an avid fan of music with eclectic tastes that range from jazz to piano concertos and rock and roll. His other hobbies are golf and scuba diving.

____________________

IN HIS OWN WORDS

On why BHP’s $38.6-billion bid for Potash Corp. failed:

“I didn’t think it would ever fly … The price was too low … There were a lot of mistakes, let’s put it that way. The Canpotex stuff and not being sensitive to tax revenue issues for the province.”

On the biggest surprise about the takeover battle:

“People didn’t know us. We did a provincial poll and 23 per cent believed we were still a Crown corporation.”

On whether it’s time to break up the Canpotex marketing alliance between Potash Corp, Mosaic and Agrium:

“Canpotex puts us on an equal footing with major government buyers such as China. In the old days, we had 12 different potash companies coming in from Saskatchewan. China played each off the other so the province was going broke, the price was negative and nothing worked. In 1972, Canpotex was formed to allow for a common export policy. It is just for marketing. There are no production discussions whatsoever.”

On why he moved to Potash Corp. in 1987 from a U.S. competitor:

“It was an opportunity to try and turn around an entity that was not very successful. Frankly, it was very easy to compete against them because they didn’t really care about delivering product on time or the quality of the product … When I started, I would go visit customers and they would say ‘We hate you.’ I was begging for business.”

On the impact of Europe’s economic turmoil on his business:

“We think in terms of 25- to 30-year mine plans. I don’t get hung up on that short-term stuff.”

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