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Long-time Sherritt chief Ian Delaney to retire

File photo of Sherritt International's Ian Delaney.

Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Ian Delaney, the "Smiling Barracuda" of Bay Street who transformed Sherritt International Corp. into a multifaceted mining company with reaches into Cuba and Madagascar, is stepping down, again, as its CEO.

The 68-year-old business maverick, who still exchanges notes with Fidel Castro and shrugs off his ban from the United States, said he can comfortably relinquish the chief executive officer's role now that his successors are primed to take over during what he sees as a prolonged period of market volatility.

"They are all firing on eight cylinders, they don't need me," Mr. Delaney said in an interview on Thursday after announcing his retirement effective at the end of the year, three years after being "drafted" back to the position. He will be replaced by chief financial officer David Pathe on Jan. 1.

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The provocative former Merrill Lynch investment banker will remain as chairman of the diversified Toronto-based resources firm he won control over in a hostile proxy contest in 1990, turning it into Canada's largest coal producer and the largest independent energy producer in Cuba.

He is perhaps best known for striking a controversial deal with the Cuban dictator for mining rights in the country that eventually led to power plants, oil and gas, and other businesses that gave Sherritt the status as one of the largest foreign investors in the communist Caribbean island country. The business relationship also resulted in Mr. Delaney being blacklisted from the U.S. because of its embargo against doing business with Cuba.

His departure comes as commodity prices have retreated from record highs on concerns that rising government debt will result in another global recession alongside a marked slowdown in China, the largest consumer of metals such as nickel, copper and coal.

Sherritt's stock has slumped by about 65 per cent from highs reached before the 2008-2009 commodities crash. Investors are concerned about lower metal prices as well as rising costs and a production delay at Sherritt's 40-per-cent owned Ambatovy nickel-cobalt project in Madagascar, a setback Mr. Delaney described last summer as "embarrassing and painful."

The company is in the "penalty box" until it can demonstrate that Ambatovy will be profitable, Mr. Delaney said. "I don't have any concerns that we will. That's what we do."

Still, his outlook for the future of commodities appears more pessimistic than his peers; unlike others, he isn't counting on China to prevent a further fall in prices.

"Markets are in for a long, tough slog here," he said. "It's hard to believe that the Chinese have figured out how to take cyclicality out of human nature," he said. "They are going to be cyclical ... And when they are cyclical, commodity prices will respond accordingly."

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His comments come alongside the latest economic figures which show China's factory sector shrank the most in 32 months in November and amid warnings that output will fall next year due to weakening global demand.

"Where is the superheated consumption that would keep the whole thing going?" Mr. Delaney said. "Maybe someone can tell me where it is, but I don't see it myself. I think we are in for a protracted period of slow growth and eventually that will bite into commodity prices."

Still, he's optimistic Sherritt's diversified business will help it survive a commodity price slump.

"It won't be pleasant, but our company is in pretty good shape ... It's a race between falling commodity prices and increasing production. That's the conundrum we are in right now," said Mr. Delaney, comparing today's volatile markets to the 1970s when investors got out of the markets and stayed out for years.

"I am quite optimistic about our ability as a company to do well in this environment ... but it's very difficult to put together a robust growth case for the globe."

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