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Globe Investor Potash Corp.'s Doyle facing the biggest sales job of his life

William J. Doyle, President and Chief Executive Officer of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan Inc., leaves the Globe and Mail after speaking to journalists. Photo by Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail

Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail/della rollins The Globe and Mail

In 1987, U.S. mining industry warrior Chuck Childers took on the toughest task of his 30-year career. He headed north to turn around a Crown corporation that led the Western world in mining potash, a key ingredient in fertilizer, but somehow couldn't make a profit from it.

Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. Potash Corp was fighting for its life, bleeding money and, in the eyes of Conservative Premier Grant Devine, had become a blight on Saskatchewan's deficit-scarred books. The provincially appointed board of Potash Corp. had cleaned out most of the top executive team. Parachuted in as the saviour, Mr. Childers needed to rebuild, and quickly, starting with a new sales chief to market his company's products to the farming heartland of the United States and Canada. "I needed somebody to come in who was my guy," Mr. Childers recalls.

To find "his guy," he prepared to raid the familiar ranks of his former employer, fertilizer producer IMC Global Inc., but IMC nailed down its top domestic salespeople with retention bonuses. One salesman, however, was left off the bonus list - a flamboyant, sharp-dressing Chicagoan in his late 30s named Bill Doyle, who had cut his teeth in offshore sales, not in the corn belt.

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No matter. Mr. Childers grabbed him anyway, because he recognized in Mr. Doyle not only talent but raw ambition. "Bill was a young guy, eager to get along in the world and he was anxious to get more responsibility," says Mr. Childers, who made Mr. Doyle the president of Potash Corp.'s sales arm.

It turned out to be a great move for Mr. Childers and an even better one for Mr. Doyle, who is not one to understate the magnitude of the task he and his new boss faced. "The reason I came to [Potash Corp.]was they were losing their fanny," Mr. Doyle says. He then tagged along with the shrewd, experienced Mr. Childers in taking the corporation public, in building the largest fertilizer business in the world, and in laying the foundation for today's global fertilizer industry.

He may have been the accidental sales boss, but as CEO for the past 11 years, Mr. Doyle has presided over one of the most extraordinary growth stories in Canadian business. From an ungainly collection of potash producers taken over by the provincial NDP government in the 1970s, Potash Corp. has emerged as an agribusiness powerhouse that controls some of the most valuable and coveted assets on Earth. With a market capitalization of less than $625-million when it went public in 1989, it is now the target of a $38.6-billion (U.S.) takeover bid by the world's biggest mining company. That is a testament to Mr. Doyle's ability not only to sell potash but to sell his vision to the capital markets - a vision of a company that feeds a hungry world but also carefully manages the vast resources it controls, so that it deserves a higher valuation than mining companies traditionally get.

But now, at 60, Mr. Doyle is being thrust into the sales job of his life. Facing what he derisively terms a "lowball" bid by Australia's BHP Billiton Ltd., he must persuade shareholders - and, more importantly, other potential bidders - that, given rising global food prices, there is still a lot more value left in Potash Corp. shares. He must convince the province that the Saskatoon-based company is a good corporate citizen, even though he and the majority of his executive team live around Chicago (and, to that end, he has pledged to move some managerial jobs back to Saskatchewan). And he must push the idea that BHP's plan to exit Canpotex, an export agency for Canada's major potash companies, is a terrible idea for the company and the province. His pitch is that Canpotex is an efficient marketing and logistics organization, not a production- and price-fixing cartel.

When he makes these arguments, Mr. Doyle speaks with the assuredness of a man who has long known only success, never failure.

When asked by The Globe and Mail last week if he thought there would be another bid to compete with BHP's, Mr. Doyle said simply, "I do" - despite the fact that a number of big players such as Rio Tinto PLC have publicly said they are not interested, while others appear to be having trouble mounting a viable bid.

In the latest development, China's Sinochem Corp. appears to have stepped back from the race, at least for now. Not that this is a big problem for Potash Corp. shareholders, who, in Mr. Doyle's view, would probably be better off just sticking with him, rather than selling out. He has never followed the unwritten rule of big-company CEOs to not promote their stock: on the contrary, he noisily promotes its upside potential. He says the company is worth far more than BHP's offer of $130 a share, more than $170, and has talked about Potash Corp. as an independent company "blowing the doors off" the previous high of $240, which is part of his say-no-to-BHP pitch. "At the end of the day, you are going to have a choice between a transaction, or the company being a standalone entity."

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Whatever the fate of Potash Corp., Mr. Doyle's phenomenal luck continues. He became CEO in 1999 and watched as the China-fuelled commodity boom lifted Potash shares to heights that briefly made it the most valuable company in Canada. The share price plunged and then rebounded somewhat, and now, even at BHP's $130 offer, Mr. Doyle would be very wealthy. He has ridden - or driven, he would say - the stock to a 5,700-per-cent total shareholder return since going public in 1989. Even at $130 a share, he personally could enjoy a payday of more than $440-million - or almost 7 per cent of the total annual income of Saskatchewan's 44,000 farms, according to 2006 census data.

When it is suggested Mr. Doyle has been plain lucky, he suggests his detractors look at Formula One racing: "You can have this unbelievable car, but if you have a lousy driver, you're not going anywhere."Confidence and charm

For Bill Doyle, life began in Chicago and he has never really left, despite his world travels as a potash salesman. He went to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to double major in music and government. His ties to the Catholic university remain close, and he sits on the board of directors..

He has said his interest in global agriculture was fuelled by a post-university 14-month motorcycle tour of the Middle East and Africa. He then joined International Minerals and Chemicals Corp. (later IMC Global Corp. and a predecessor to Mosaic Co.), and sold fertilizer outside North America. Mr. Childers did not know him well, but remembered him when, in 1987, the older man was recruited by Saskatchewan's Conservative government to run Potash Corp. with an eye to taking it public.

Mr. Childers had supervised IMC operations from Esterhazy, Sask. to Carlsbad, N.M., and there was no thought of being an absentee CEO. "When they hired me, Saskatoon was where the corporate office was and that's where the job was." In rebuilding the executive team, one of his top priorities was human resources, because he intended to reduce production levels and he knew there would be wrenching layoffs in a province where unions were powerful. So he brought in an experienced HR manager from IMC.

Then there was Mr. Doyle, who exuded easy confidence and charm in his stylishly cut suits and vibrantly coloured ties. When the board of the public company first met him in November, 1989, they were blown away by the charisma, and his ability to blend a folksy patter with a sharp grasp of global agriculture trade. A former director says: "He is an overpowering guy." Another recalls: "Doyle probably knew more about the potash market than anyone else in the world. He knew what he was doing."

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Mr. Childers, who comes from a mining background, saw Mr. Doyle as a different kind of creature. "Bill is pleasant and easy to get along with and, when you're a salesman, that's what you got to do if you want any customers. If you're an old production guy, you can be hard-assed if you want to be and nobody cares as long as you produce."

Yet the business itself is simple, Mr. Childers says. "Potash is essentially potash. Everybody talks about their good quality and so forth, but when a farmer gets ready to put it on the ground, it is pretty much all the same."

The only leverage for a producer is to cut prices, and that strategy ruled the market for decades. Producers would indiscriminately boost output and slash prices, dragging the industry with them. In its Crown corporation days, Potash Corp. was no different, intent on maximizing output, and thus employment, at the expense of profit. "That's precisely why PCS was losing so much money and that's how we got it turned around," Mr. Childers says. "We cut our production back so there wouldn't be an excess."

But companies have to be careful in how production constraint is exercised. In the North American market, "if you look like you are doing that, the [U.S.] Justice Department comes after you for fixing prices," Mr. Childers says. But in offshore markets, it was easier to balance supply and demand because cartels are legal. That was where Canpotex came in, he says, as it imposed supply discipline among its partners.

In Saskatchewan, Mr. Childers also had to walk the fine line between the demands of markets and a province that often assumed it was still the owner of Potash Corp. He always felt closer to the Conservatives who hired him, but he came to admire Roy Romanow, who was NDP premier from 1991 to 2001. As for Mr. Doyle, when he joined Potash Corp., "I didn't want to come to a company that had a political and social agenda, because the business agenda is tough enough," he insists. But the company, although now free of government ownership ties, still operates in a highly charged political milieu, and that has been the story of his 23-year career with the company.

When Potash Corp.'s shares lagged, Mr. Childers and the premier agreed that Potash Corp. should be relieved of foreign ownership constraints and could have more than half its shareholder base outside Canada. In return, it was understood the headquarters would always remain in Saskatchewan. That has remained official policy, although under Mr. Doyle the company has effectively moved its corporate office to Northbrook. Ill., near Chicago.

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As Mr. Childers' tenure approached its end, Mr. Doyle was the logical successor. But directors were sensitive to the fact that the top candidate had not actually moved to Canada from Chicago. According to Mr. Childers, the board delivered an ultimatum - come to Saskatoon or forget the job.

Mr. Doyle agreed, and built a 6,000-square-foot home on a rare patch of developable land on the south bank of the South Saskatchewan River. His wife and three children moved to Saskatoon, and, for a while, the transition worked. But Kathy Doyle felt the local school system could not meet her family's needs, and she moved the family back to their home in suburban Winnetka, Ill.

Mr. Doyle faced the prospect of weeks on planes selling potash and doing deals, and then returning to an empty mansion in Saskatoon. So he, too, went back to Chicago and sold the Canadian house. Given his family situation, there was little the board could do.

Mr. Doyle is now comfortable as a fixture in Chicago business life, where he sits on the board of the Executives' Club of Chicago and is active in the Big Shoulders Fund, which supports Catholic schools in the neediest urban areas.

But he was also active in University of Saskatchewan's recent $150-million (Canadian) fundraising campaign, where, says university president Peter MacKinnon, the big-picture Mr. Doyle urged the school to stretch ever higher in its financial goals. "He's an optimist and he always wants to advance the best possibilities," Mr. MacKinnon says.

Under Mr. Childers and Mr. Doyle, Potash Corp. became not just the world's leading potash producer but also the third-largest supplier of two other fertilizer components, phosphate and nitrogen. It has phosphate operations in North Carolina and Florida, and a nitrogen centre in Trinidad, as well as interests in China, Israel, Chile and Jordan. Any CEO would have to be on the road constantly, and it is easier to do that from Chicago than from Saskatoon.

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Mr. Doyle says he spends two weeks a month travelling and a week each in Chicago and Saskatoon, as he sells fertilizer to global markets. "I have an apartment in Saskatoon, a car in Saskatoon and my office in Saskatoon," he says. Contrast that to his adversary, BHP CEO Marius Kloppers, whose office will always be in Melbourne, he says.

But the issue that matters is not where Mr. Doyle hangs his snappy suit jackets, but the future of Potash Corp., and he insists his outsized vision will prevail: No new potash mines are being built in the world, and, in a time of rising protein demand, his company will be sitting atop Canada's greatest resource treasure, outside of Fort McMurray. So why give it away at bargain prices?

Lapsing into his folksy Midwest drawl, he says "it's a little bit like the fellow whose dog runs away in Saskatchewan. It's nice and flat and two or three days later, you can still see that dog. And you can see what's coming at you in our business."

At least, that's what Bill Doyle is selling now. Time will tell if anyone is buying.

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