Weeks away from ending a 21-year run at the helm of Sherritt International Corp., Ian Delaney has lost none of the bluster that defined his tumultuous reign at the mining conglomerate.
“I’m not retiring; I’m firing myself,” he says, flashing the toothy grin that years ago earned him the nickname, the Smiling Barracuda of Bay Street.
In January, Mr. Delaney, 68, will hand the reins to successor David Pathe, saying it’s time.
“One of the disadvantages about getting old is you get too thoughtful. We need younger people who have higher energy levels,” Mr. Delaney says.
Still, talking to the chief executive officer over a simple lunch of baked chicken and steamed vegetables at Sheritt’s spartan offices in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood, the Bay Street legend sounds more restless than tired. “The intensity is gone,” he says, poking at a steamed vegetable. “I can no longer flip the company on its ear every 18 months with a deal.”
A self-described “junk collector,” Mr. Delaney transformed Sherritt from a nearly bankrupt nickel refiner and fertilizer producer into a corporate flea market dealer that bought and repaired cast-off companies, everything from Alberta oil and gas operations to Cuban hotels.
Today, Sherritt has core holdings in nickel and coal mines and refineries stretching from Saskatchewan to Madagascar. The company is big, with annual revenue of $1.8-billion, and remains focused on long-term projects, such as its Sulawesi nickel venture with Rio Tinto in Indonesia. For Mr. Delaney, the adrenalin rush of deal making is fading.
Being “sensible” and “balanced” – the CEO spits these words out like they’re bones from a piece of fish – just isn’t for a barracuda. Not for an adventurer who likes to relax by flying his helicopter to the northern reaches of Ungava Bay.
Mr. Delaney will remain as non-executive chairman of Sherritt, but says he won’t often visit the six-storey beige-brick office building his company bought in 1997. The building is a favourite “junk” steal, acquired during the real estate crash for $3.25-million, an 80-per-cent markdown.
He will clear his fifth-floor office in January and move to a small room on a lower floor that he plans to occupy only when called to chair board meetings.
Mr. Delaney says he has “no idea” what he will do next, but vows to continue to rattle and shake the often circumspect Canadian business club.
He wrested control of Sherritt in 1990 by waging a then-rare proxy battle to successfully unseat a board that he warned was about to “tank” the company.
When Ontario announced shutdowns of coal-fired power plants in the mid-2000s, Mr. Delaney skewered the government for “appalling” mismanagement of the province’s electricity needs.
His greatest contempt, however, is reserved for the United States, whose 1996 Helms-Burton Act barred domestic and foreign companies from “trafficking” in U.S. property expropriated by Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. The law arrived five years after Sherritt signed the first of many deals with Mr. Castro, that one to invest in a Cuban nickel mine once owned by a U.S. company.
Although the law effectively barred Mr. Delaney and his family from travelling to the United States, Mr. Delaney says he has never had second thoughts about Sherritt’s Cuban business ties.
“Not one regret. It’s made me rich,” he says, narrowing his eyes to a gelid stare. “I’m on the side of the angels in this argument. I made a principled business decision that was right.”
Unconcerned about what he calls Washington’s “narrow-minded” policies, Mr. Delaney has expanded Sherritt’s presence in Cuba by investing in mining, industrial, tourist and agricultural ventures. He has forged a close friendship with Mr. Castro, sustained by a regular correspondence.He is probably the only CEO in North America to donate $100,000 to a Cuban Communist youth group.
His contempt for Washington’s Cuban politics is written on the walls of Sherritt’s small boardroom, where we are eating lunch. Framed copies of original editorial cartoons from newspapers around the world paper the walls. Each illustration lampoons the Helms-Burton Act.
He chuckles menacingly when he stops in front of a cartoon of Bill Clinton lighting a cannon that is supposed to be pointed at Cuba, but is instead turned toward the president’s feet.
“God, I love this,” he growls.
As he nears the twilight of his career, Mr. Delaney concedes his bravado may have cost him professionally.
“Being blunt is limiting in a way because the world exists in shades of grey and obfuscation. I ask myself ‘Would I have been able to run a Fortune 500 company if I was more temperate?’ ” he says.
The moment of self-doubt is fleeting. Within seconds, Mr. Delaney is waving the thought away.
“I’d probably have an ulcer and heart condition from repressing everything.”
Mr. Delaney has been breaking the rules ever since he left home. He was kicked out of the University of Manitoba “for not doing any work” in 1964 and spent most of the next 24 years working non-stop to make his way from a retail broker in Winnipeg to the president of Merrill Lynch Canada in the mid-1980s.
On Bay Street, he joined ranks with some of the country’s most colourful mavericks, including his former boss at McLeod Young Weir Ltd., Austin Taylor, the outspoken Bay Street executive who travelled to work in a converted vintage cab and backed raiders such as Samuel Belzberg.
He counted Barrick Gold Corp. chairman Peter Munk and Brascan’s sharp-elbowed former chief Jack Cockwell as clients. When he set out on his own in 1987, to form what could be called an early private equity company to invest in corporate bargains, his backers included Mr. Munk and Chicago real estate developer Sam Zell.
When his company made its first acquisition of a bankrupt U.S. oil and refinery company, he financed the deal with junk bonds raised by Drexel Burnham Lambert and its controversial chief Michael Milken, who at the time was under indictment for breaching securities laws.
What drew Mr. Delaney to the controversial financiers were their contrarian investment strategies. They made their fortunes backing deals that few others wanted. It is a strategy that defines Mr. Delaney’s investment record.
He bet on a bankrupt oil and gas refinery, a mismanaged Sherritt, an outcast Cuba and countless undervalued mining companies because “nobody else wanted it.”
What is so appealing about going against the grain?
“It’s probably an immaturity. I never do what I am told.”
Born in Winnipeg in 1943.
Father, career army officer.
Mother, a nurse.
1964: “Jack of all trades” at Winnipeg trade magazine publisher, Sanford Evans Publishing.
1969: Retail broker, Royal Securities, Winnipeg.
1980: Head of institutional trading, McLeod Young Weir.
1984: President, Merrill Lynch Canada Inc.
1987: Forms Horsham Corp. with Peter Munk.
1990: Launches successful proxy battle to gain control of Sherritt.
Married to Bay Street investment fund owner Kiki Delaney.
They have two grown sons
Residences in Toronto, Georgian Bay, Hockley Valley and Bermuda.
His family refers to his large collection of vehicles as “Big Boy Toys.”
Among them, an TBM 850 single-engine turboprop airplane and a Eurocopter helicopter.
“Any time you find a consensus, shoot against it. Things go to the bottom when everyone loses faith. Well, I am a bottom fisher, I am a junk collector.”