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An Equinox copper mine is seen in Lumwana, Zambia, in this aerial view undated handout obtained by Reuters on April 4, 2011. Minmetals Resources, China's biggest metals trading firm, on Monday offered $6.5 billion to buy Equinox Minerals, chasing the target company's copper assets in Zambia and Saudi Arabia. (REUTERS)
An Equinox copper mine is seen in Lumwana, Zambia, in this aerial view undated handout obtained by Reuters on April 4, 2011. Minmetals Resources, China's biggest metals trading firm, on Monday offered $6.5 billion to buy Equinox Minerals, chasing the target company's copper assets in Zambia and Saudi Arabia. (REUTERS)

Investors unclear on Barrick’s future direction amid CEO shakeup Add to ...

On the eve of the first full meeting of Barrick Gold Corp.’s new board, investors are in the dark about the gold giant’s strategy.

Barrick’s new chairman John Thornton said he wants the miner, the world’s biggest gold producer, to be the “leading gold company” and a “leader” in copper. But what that means is unknown.

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“I don’t think they have been clear, and I don’t think they have made up their minds yet,” said Michael Sprung, president of Sprung Investment Management, which has held Barrick shares for about five years.

The miner’s game plan has come under scrutiny after Mr. Thornton got rid of the company’s chief executive role. Instead, the company will have two co-presidents and the company’s chief financial officer will work closely with Mr. Thornton to develop strategy, he said. Barrick CEO Jamie Sokalsky will be leaving in September, just two years into his tenure.

The management shakeup will lead to further changes at Barrick, which is already in flux after a turbulent year. Directors who had served on the board with former chairman and founder Peter Munk since the beginning faced pressure to leave, and merger talks with Colorado-based gold company Newmont Mining Corp. blew up, with each side blaming the other for the collapse.

The co-presidents’ first major task is to conduct an analysis of Barrick’s 17 mines, a process that is expected to take between three to six months. The mine assessment started under Mr. Sokalsky, who was appointed as CEO and given the task of cleaning up the mess. The company sold assets, raised funds to pay down its debt, suspended projects and shrank its production.

Shareholders are anxious over whether Barrick will pursue another transformational deal as it did with Newmont, which would have consolidated the two companies’ gold operations in Nevada, or alternatively, whether Barrick will sell its copper assets, which some analysts say is needed to pay down its debt.

“I really want to see their strategy outlined and say, ‘Does it make sense to continue to hold the stock?’” said Don Reed, president of Franklin Templeton Investments in Canada. The firm has held Barrick shares for about a decade.

Investors will have to wait until at least the fall for Barrick to unveil a plan. In the meantime, any hint of the company’s strategy will be examined closely.

When Barrick has failed to convey its strategy to the market in the past, its stock has suffered.

When Barrick bought copper company Equinox Minerals in 2012, whose main asset was the Lumwana mine in Zambia, shareholders panned the deal. Barrick executives had said they wanted to get out of Africa, and had given no indication that the company wanted to diversify further into copper.

Little did they know that Barrick had been pursuing copper for at least a decade and that, for years, Mr. Munk had aspired to diversify Barrick beyond gold – a move Mr. Thornton has said he supports.

Under the code name “Project Orange,” Barrick had pursued a merger with copper heavyweight Arizona-based Freeport-McMoran Inc. in 1999 and 2003, sources familiar with the matter said.

A merger with Freeport would have given Barrick access to the American miner’s massive Grasberg gold and copper mine in Indonesia, and would have been seen primarily as a gold acquisition.

But when Freeport made a bid for fellow copper miner Phelps Dodge in 2006, Barrick was forced to reassess its merger aspirations for fear of losing the gold premium it commands in the market, typically valuing its shares above non-precious metal producers, the sources said.

Instead, Barrick pursued a three-way merger with Freeport and Newmont, the world’s second-largest gold producer. With Newmont on board, the expectation was that Barrick and Newmont would merge to bulk up their market capitalization, and that the combined gold company would then merge with Freeport, the sources said.

One source said Barrick’s proposed merger with Newmont was always ultimately about moving toward a merger with Freeport.

Spokespersons for Barrick, Newmont and Freeport declined comment.

It looks unlikely that Mr. Thornton will follow Mr. Munk down the merger path. The chairman, a former Goldman Sachs executive, recently said the Barrick-Newmont tie-up was no longer on the table.

So far, Mr. Thornton has formed a partnership with a state-owned Saudi Arabian miner to develop Barrick’s small copper project in the kingdom. Mr. Thornton has also dismissed rumours that Lumwana is on the chopping block. However, private equity has been circling the mine, one source familiar with the matter said.

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