When I graduated from high school, I did not have enough money to go to university. I needed to make a lot of bucks pretty fast and wanted a bit of an adventure, too. So I became a miner.
My first job was at a Falconbridge open-pit copper mine near Ignace, in the wilds of Northwestern Ontario. The second was at an underground Inco nickel mine in Thompson, Man. It was dangerous work, and, over a year, I made what seemed like a fortune to me, enough to pay for a degree from the University of Western Ontario. I graduated largely debt-free.
In that sense, I credit Falconbridge and Inco for getting me through school and have a soft spot for both companies (despite their nasty environmental records back then). The two would come back into my life 25 years later, when they tried to merge with one another to try to repel a hostile takeover offer for Falconbridge from Xstrata, then 40-per-cent owned by Switzerland’s Glencore GLNCY. Covering that battle for The Globe and Mail kept me busy for months.
Then – poof! – they were gone. Inco was bought by Brazil’s Vale and Falconbridge went to Xstrata, now absorbed into Glencore. The century-old Inco and Falconbridge names disappeared, along with their Toronto head offices and the jobs that went with them. They became branch plants.
Today, there is only one big domestically controlled diversified mining company left on Canadian soil – Vancouver’s Teck TECK-B-T. It was founded by Norman Bell Keevil and expanded by his son, Norman B., who is chairman emeritus and, equipped with his super-voting Class A shares, the controlling shareholder. The company, with a market value of about $32-billion, is a significant producer of copper, zinc and metallurgical coal.
It is almost certain that Teck will form the final chapter in the great hollowing out of the Canadian mining industry. It seems just a matter of time before it is bought in a hostile or friendly deal and run from afar. Glencore – yes, those guys again – have offered to merge with Teck to create a world-class metals company focused on the energy revolution; the second step would see the creation of a new company to hold their thermal and metallurgical coal assets. In Glencore’s defence, it vows to run the new metals company – GlenTeck – from Canada and maintain a Canadian stock market listing.
Glencore’s attempt may fail; we will get an indication Wednesday, when Teck’s plan to reinvent itself by spinning off its coal business goes to a shareholders’ vote. If the plan is rejected, Glencore has said it would be prepared to jack up the offer price, at which point a bidding war could erupt, like the one that ultimately consumed Inco, Falconbridge and many other Canadian resources companies over the past two decades.
Even if the vote goes in favour of Teck, its status as an independent player may be doomed. Mr. Keevil has said he would be open to a deal to enlarge the new metals-focused company. In all likelihood, any merger or takeover would involve one of the global mining heavyweights – Glencore, Vale VALE-N, Anglo American NGLOY, BHP BHP-N or Rio Tinto RTPPF. None is Canadian.
I admire Mr. Keevil’s proud waving of the Canadian flag, his efforts to preserve the legacy and head office of a company whose roots go back to the late 19th century. But I also think that Teck, to a large degree, doomed itself to become the plaything of the biggies. It could have used sheer bulk to make itself effectively takeover-proof. Instead, it remained stuck in the global mining industry’s dwindling middle ranks.
Today’s mining heavyweights used a flurry of acquisitions and mine openings – more of the former – to turn themselves into monsters, initially to play the urbanization game, as hundreds of millions of people moved into cities in China and elsewhere and bought everything from steel sinks to copper wiring, and lately to supply the metals required to make electric-car batteries, wind turbines and solar farms.
Instead of bulking up big time in metals, Teck pursued a strange diversification strategy. In 2008, it paid $14.1-billion in cash and stock – a price considered outrageously high by some investors – for Fording Canadian Coal Trust. That deal made it the No. 2 exporter of metallurgical coal but would eventually earn the disapproval of investors who followed environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles. To many of them, there was no difference between metallurgical and thermal coal – both were drivers of global warming.
Years later, Teck invested in the Fort Hills oil sands project, another puzzling move. Yes, mining, which Teck knows a thing or two about, is used to produce oil from the oil sands. But oil was a completely alien product and market for Teck. Last year, it unloaded its 21.3-per-cent stake in Fort Hills. Two years earlier, it abandoned its Frontier oil sands mining proposal.
I have no idea whether Glencore, whose merger proposal has twice been rejected by Teck, will end up winning the Canadian company. I do know that coal and oil were rather pointless diversions. Imagine if all that effort had been put into base metals. Today Teck would be a predator, not prey. Its status as a Canadian-controlled miner will inevitably end at some point because it is too small to survive on its own, just as Inco and Falconbridge were.