Barrick Gold Corp.'s move to tap Jamie Sokalsky as chief executive officer puts another company veteran and financial expert at the helm of the world's largest gold producer. But investors reacted with a mixture of skepticism, indifference and frustration to the appointment, as the company strives to boost a flagging stock price.
"I must say I'm a bit sideswiped," said Bill Harris, a fund manager with Avenue Investment Management in Toronto, which owns Barrick shares. "We really liked what [outgoing CEO Aaron Regent] was doing. He was executing the plan ... Now what's the plan? I haven't had anybody tell me today why this happened."
Mr. Sokalsky is a throwback to the traditional Barrick CEO, someone who has risen through the company ranks and spent time as chief financial officer. Mr. Sokalsky has been with the company since 1993, first as treasurer and then CFO since 1999. Two of his predecessors, Greg Wilkins and Randall Oliphant, were also long-time company executives who also served as Barrick's CFO. Mr. Regent, who became CEO in 2009, was one of the few outsiders to be named to the top job in recent years but he was also an accountant with an extensive background as a CFO.
But tradition doesn't mean much today for many investors and analysts. And many aren't convinced Mr. Sokalsky will make much of a difference or address the perceived shortcomings of Mr. Regent – an inability to drive up Barrick's share price.
Some wonder if Mr. Sokalsky has the backbone to stand up to company founder Peter Munk, who remains as co-chairman and a driving force at Barrick. "I think you need a strong man in that role because Peter is a very dominant personality on the board and in the company being founder," said John Ing, an analyst at Maison Placements Canada Inc. Whether Mr. Sokalsky is up to that task "remains to be seen," he added.
Mr. Ing and others described Mr. Sokalsky as a competent, hard-working executive who carries out orders. For example, Mr. Sokalsky was an ardent defender of Barrick's controversial hedging program for years, despite complaints from some investors that the program prevented the company from taking full advantage of rising gold prices. When Mr. Regent decided to abandon the strategy in 2009, Mr. Sokalsky dutifully unwound the hedges and said the company was acting in the best interests of shareholders. "I always got the feeling that anything that he said or did was a party line. He's a party line guy," said Mr. Ing, who believes Mr. Sokalsky might be only an interim CEO.
There isn't much in Mr. Sokalsky's background to suggest a risk-taker or daring innovator. He grew up in Thunder Bay, Ont., and attended Lakehead University, where he once described his "defining moment" as "the day that I first asked [his now wife] Nancy out on a date (and she said yes)."
Mr. Sokalsky graduated in 1980, became a chartered accountant two years later and joined George Weston Ltd., where he worked for 10 years before landing at Barrick. He was unavailable for comment Wednesday but in a statement he said his focus as Barrick's CEO, "will be on maximizing shareholder value and our mission of superior performance."
George Topping, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus in Toronto, said he couldn't understand why Mr. Sokalsky replaced Mr. Regent. "What's the point? I don't think there's any change of strategy here," Mr. Topping said. "The excuse given, this underperformance [of the share price], doesn't hold water."
He said Barrick's stock hasn't performed badly compared with other gold companies. But the company's $7.3-billion takeover of copper miner Equinox Minerals Ltd. last summer has encountered challenges and the change in CEO may have more to do with that. "Maybe there's more bad news down the line. Maybe Equinox is worse than they originally thought," Mr. Topping said. "I think there is more to it."