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Dr. Norman Keevil in downtown Toronto on May 8, 2006.Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Canadian mining companies have a long history of selling out to foreign buyers, but this past week one man with unique powers to fight back drew an indelible line in the sand.

Taking a fiercely nationalistic stand against Glencore PLC’s US$23.1-billion proposed takeover of Teck Resources Ltd., TECK-B-T controlling shareholder Norman B. Keevil told The Globe and Mail that the big Swiss miner can hike its price all it wants, but he will not play ball. “Canada is not for sale,” he said.

Three generations of the Keevil family built what is now Canada’s biggest diversified mining company over more than half a century. During that time, Teck threw its hat into the ring in every major commodity, built many mines in Canada and overseas, and supported Canadian entrepreneurs by funding hundreds of Canadian exploration companies.

Mr. Keevil’s stand against a formidable foreign-owned miner that is more than three times bigger than Teck hit a nerve in the Canadian mining community, engineering deep respect from peers who mourned the loss of other great Canadian mining companies in the past to foreign giants.

“Keeping Teck Canadian is very important,” said Rob McEwen, founder of Goldcorp Inc., formerly the world’s biggest gold company. “I agree with him on fending off the foreigners. If you look at the landscape, we’re a big mining country, but we don’t have a lot of domestic giants.”

Like the Keevil family, Mr. McEwen succeeded in building Goldcorp into a giant. When Goldcorp in 2019 was sold to Nevada-based Newmont Corp., he was saddened.

“There’s a big loss of value to the country,” Mr. McEwen said. “Norm recognizes that when the head office moves out of the country, the contribution to the social fabric, and the community changes, because it’s a different jurisdiction, and a different country running it.”

Once acquired, Canadian mining companies are run by non-Canadians, and a formerly big domestic company becomes a small part of a giant international machine. Canadians do not control their destiny once they sell, and this upsets Mr. Keevil on a deeply personal level.

Mr. Keevil, alongside Barrick Gold Corp. founder Peter Munk, was one of several Canadian establishment figures to speak out against the foreign acquisition of miners Alcan Inc., Falconbridge Ltd. and Inco Inc. in the 2000s. Mr. Keevil tried to stop the rot.

In 2006, when he was chairman, Teck attempted a $17.8-billion takeover of Inco. When Inco ended up selling itself to Brazil’s Vale SA for a higher price, Mr. Keevil told the Vancouver Sun that Inco chief executive officer Scott Hand had “sold Canada out.”

“He was completely distraught when the Canadian government let Inco, Falconbridge and Noranda go,” said friend Pierre Lassonde, co-founder of Franco-Nevada Corp., the world’s biggest mining royalty firm.

“He said to himself, this will never happen to Teck. And believe me, he will never sell out, not only to Glencore, but not to anybody.”

In the absence of the federal government blocking foreign takeover deals, the boards of Canadian companies targeted in the past had little option to fight back, because it is their fiduciary duty to find the best deal for shareholders. And even if some executives or directors privately had misgivings about selling to foreigners, there was little point in voting their own shares against a deal because large institutional shareholders holding controlling stakes always had the last say.

But Glencore’s pursuit of Teck has a very different dynamic. For decades, Teck’s dual class of stock gives holders of its A shares super voting rights and therefore all the power. Carrying 100 votes each, the A shares are predominantly held by the Keevil family and Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. The Japanese investor has made it clear it will not betray Mr. Keevil, refusing to even take a meeting with Glencore.

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Teck Mining Company's zinc and lead smelting and refining complex is pictured in Trail, B.C., on Nov. 26, 2012.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Teck’s history goes back to 1913, when Hughes Gold Mines Ltd. started up a gold mine in Teck Township on the shores of Kirkland Lake, Ont.

Mr. Keevil’s father, Norman Bell Keevil, made his fortune in the 1950s developing the high-grade Temagami copper mine in northeastern Ontario. The elder Mr. Keevil had been circling Teck, then called Teck-Hughes for years, and in 1959 he seized control of the gold miner.

Under Mr. Keevil’s father, Teck diversified like crazy. Over the next two decades, Teck had its hands in almost every facet of the domestic mining industry, developing gold, copper, oil and gas, niobium and silver mines all across Canada, and supporting hundreds of Canadian entrepreneurs along the way.

“One of the most amazing aspects of the Keevils’ evolution into a major power in the Canadian mining industry is that they have managed to retain most of the stripped-down characteristics of a small company. Far from adopting the slow-moving bureaucracy that typifies a major corporation, the Keevils go out of their way to maintain a lean and flexible organization,” wrote Peter C. Newman in his seminal book, The Canadian Establishment.

Teck’s lack of airs even extended to the Keevil’s low-key office building in Vancouver, which Mr. Newman described as “surely the ugliest in Canada.”

“It’s an older building with an intimate, unobstructed view of Stanley Park in Vancouver, but not even the panorama can atone for the execrable decorating job. The furniture is reproduction antique, and the carpet is a mind-snapping field of diagonal brown-and-white blocks that contrasts jarringly with the flowered wallpaper,” he wrote.

Scott Dunbar, head of the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia, said that what has always made Teck sui generis as a mining company is its refusal to be defined by, or hemmed into, any one commodity, a strategy that allowed it to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible.

When Mr. Keevil took over from his father as CEO in 1981, the company’s trajectory went even higher. Teck took on increasingly ambitious projects, and succeeded in getting technically challenging mines built in difficult terrain, such as the Red Dog mine in Alaska, and Antamina high up the Andes.

“His ability to find, develop and operate mines, there’s not a lot of companies that can do that,” said Prof. Dunbar.

Like every mining company, Teck had its share of stumbles. In the early 2000s, Teck diversified yet again, this time into metallurgical coal. For a while it looked like a smart move, considering what seemed at the time to be insatiable Chinese demand for the steelmaking commodity. But in 2008, Teck made the disastrous decision to vastly overpay for Fording Canadian Coal. With a crippling debt load, and a once-in-a-century financial crisis raging, its share price crumbled, and it came close to going under. Those years chastened and humbled Mr. Keevil.

“We are all like lemmings. We tend to go in one direction all together,” he told The Globe in 2021.

“In 2005, it was ‘stronger for longer’ because it was the supercycle. Of course, a lot of people didn’t recognize that supercycles [end].”

Eventually Teck suffered the ignominy of a bailout by a state-controlled Chinese company. The company spent much of the 2010s rebuilding and refocusing. Over the past five years, Teck has sold its money-losing oil division, doubled down on critical minerals and just weeks ago completed construction on a massive new copper mine in Chile. This year, Teck announced a split that, if approved by shareholders, will separate its non-environmental-social-and-governance-friendly coal unit from its copper and zinc assets. While that arrangement has garnered a lukewarm reception among shareholders, it’s one that will keep the company Canada-based, Canadian-owned and run by Canadians.

“Mr. Keevil is a very proud Canadian, and a very proud member of the Canadian mining community. He built Teck into what it is, he and his people around him,” Prof. Dunbar said. “He would not like to see that go.”

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Tickers mentioned in this story

Study and track financial data on any traded entity: click to open the full quote page. Data updated as of 24/04/24 2:46pm EDT.

SymbolName% changeLast
GLCNF
Glencore Internation
+2.83%5.892
TECK-B-T
Teck Resources Ltd Cl B
+0.05%62.23

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