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.
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.
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.
Born 1950, Highland Park, Ill.
Middle of five children. His father, a chemist, was head of R&D at Colgate-Palmolive.
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.
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.
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.”