My lunch with the CEO of one of Canada's mining giants is in danger because I am failing a safety test.
Visitors entering the Montreal headquarters of Rio Tinto Alcan a receptionist tartly informs me, cannot enter the building until they pass an "induction test." I am ushered to a computer, where I watch a safety video and answer multiple-choice questions.
I ace every question except the last, which prompts the machine to freeze. What now? Eventually the computer, let's call it Hal, spits out the answer, reluctantly it seems, and I am whisked into a hushed, wood-panelled dining room to meet a trim 52-year-old who heads one of the world's largest producers of aluminum, bauxite and alumina.
Jacynthe Côté fixes me with a stern look when I confess my somewhat shaky grasp of emergency protocol. Tapping a plum fingernail on a glistening mahogany dining table the size of a small pond, she says: "It's easy: When something goes wrong, follow me."
Ms. Côté has been delivering that same message ever since she was appointed Rio Tinto Alcan's chief executive officer in February, 2009. It was a job few could have wanted. The $38-billion takeover of Alcan in 2007 by London-based Rio Tinto PLC burdened the mining goliath with so much debt that it had to make what she calls "radical decisions" to slash 17,000 positions - 10 per cent of its global work force - and dozens of far-flung operations to survive a brutal worldwide recession.
In Canada, thousands of jobs were jettisoned, capital spending was frozen, capacity sharply reduced and divisions sold or permanently shuttered, including the Beauharnois aluminum smelter in Quebec, where Ms. Côté first attracted the attention of Alcan's senior management in the late 1980s.
"It wasn't easy," Ms. Côté says. "Alcan was used to being the acquirer, not the acquiree. There was a lot of grief." She turned employees away from their "suffering and whingeing" by visiting company divisions and delivering a sharp message: "There's no time for that!"
In meetings and private talks, the blunt and unflappable executive compared the old Alcan to a deceased husband. Rio Tinto was the new spouse and as long as workers were collecting paycheques, she told them they had to make the best of the new marriage. "I would say: 'Next Thursday you are going to get your paycheque deposited in your bank account. … this is your moment to get committed."
Paycheques were not Ms. Côté's motivation to take the helm during the economic storm. Rather, it was her long history with the company and her deep-rooted faith in the future of its product. "I love aluminum," she says of the malleable, lightweight and recyclable metal that has become the "It" material of new technologies including energy-efficient cars, solar panels and Apple's new generation of MacBook Pro laptops.
Had she left, Ms. Côté said, "I would have probably felt I was letting them down." By staying, she believed she could "minimize collateral damage" by relying on her experience and operational knowledge to protect the company's most efficient operations, while closing the most outdated. What kept her going, she said, was a faith that "things could only improve."
The dark times seem like distant history in the gilt-painted dining room that was once part of newspaper baron Lord Atholstan's palatial home a century ago, and is now a wing in the sprawling complex of old and modern buildings that make up Rio Tinto Alcan's headquarters on Sherbrooke Street.
Under the watchful portrait of Lady Atholstan, we sample plates of smoked salmon, pasta salads and Thai rolls, a selection of modern cuisine that seems appropriate for Ms. Côté's pioneering leadership. She is the first female CEO in the company's history and one of only two women on Rio Tinto's nine-person executive committee. And one day before our lunch in late December, her promise of a new beginning at the beleaguered company took hold when Rio Tinto Alcan unveiled plans to invest more than $1-billion to modernize and expand smelters in Quebec and British Columbia.
"There's more to come," she says, breaking into a broad smile. Although she won't discuss details, she suggests Rio Tinto Alcan has a "cautious" long-term plan in place to invest billions of dollars more to modernize and expand its Kitimat smelter in B.C. and new-technology centre in Quebec's Saguenay region. When the projects are finished, foreign parent Rio Tinto will have fulfilled its takeover investment promises to Ottawa and the Canadian unit will operate the world's lowest-cost and environmentally cleanest aluminum smelters.
Ms. Côté would not be talking about any of these achievements if she had not made a decision in the early 1990s to throw her cautious management style to the wind. A senior Alcan executive she describes as her mentor sat her down at the time to tell her the company was so impressed with her management style and the efficiency gains she squeezed from aging aluminum operations in Quebec that they wanted to move her on to the executive fast track. At first, she says, she balked because she feared their expectations were too high. "I had a bit of concern about a risk of failing."
She also worried that she would be overwhelmed by her busy corporate and home life with three young children at the time.
"There were some pretty frank conversations about what they were expecting … I felt they were pushy. They had to give me a break especially when I had kids; I would say 'You're killing me, everyone is killing me right now.' " Eventually, Alcan's senior executives convinced Ms. Côté to make the leap. The turning point came during a conversation, which as Ms. Côté retells it, sounds like the stuff of management fairy tales.
"One of my mentors that I really trusted said: 'We have a real consensus about what we think you can do. We think you can go for it. For that to happen you need to accept this and trust the organization.' " At that point, she says, "I kind of clicked. I just said to myself, 'trust them, just give them a chance.' " The decision turbo-charged her career. She moved so quickly through a number of posts in Europe and in Alcan's head office that when she arrived at a new job, her staff would joke it was time to prepare for a farewell party. By 2005 she was the chief executive officer of Alcan's Bauxite and Alumina business group, a core division that put her in the running for the top job at Alcan.
While women are rare in the senior ranks of major mining companies, Ms. Côté credits Alcan's long-standing commitment to meritocracy and mentoring talented managers for her success. "Women were treated exactly the same as men." So much so that prior to Rio Tinto's takeover, four of Alcan's senior executive team were women, including Cynthia Carroll, who left in 2007 to become the first female chief executive officer of London-based Anglo American PLC.
Although women are scarcer at Rio Tinto, she says she is comfortable with Alcan's new owner because it shares a devotion to "excellence," "good governance" and "disciplined" investments in projects.
"It feels like home."
Born in the remote northern Quebec town of Normandin. Her father was a musician and gentleman farmer.
The only daughter of six children, she grew up competing with her brothers in family hockey and baseball games.
Her brothers treated her as an equal, a "key factor" that made her comfortable in the mining sector. "I don't feel lost in a male-dominated environment."
After graduating with a chemistry degree from Laval University, her first job was a 10-month stint at a semi-conductor company in Granby, Que., where she was night-shift process manager.
Worked in a variety of managerial posts at Esso Building Products in Montreal for eight years, overseeing the development and production of new construction products.
Joined Alcan as process analyst at the Vaudreuil, Que., alumina refinery in 1988. Within a year she was tapped as a manager and moved quickly up the management chain, overseeing a variety of smelting and refining operations in Canada and the U.K.
Her mother urged her to be a teacher so she could be home at night and spend summers with a family. For a while she dabbled in post-graduate studies, but found academic chemistry too abstract and opted for "the real life of chemistry" in the factories.
She lives in Montreal with her husband Denis Dion and their three children, aged 16, 17 and 19.
Her husband ended his career as an emergency room nurse after he was seriously injured 14 years ago in a car accident that limited his ability to walk for several years.
Ms. Côté is a breast cancer survivor.
Prides herself on keeping a balanced and healthy life, but she doesn't seek perfection as a mother or executive. "I have given up a long time ago the goal of being the best mom, the best wife, the best professional … but I do have to be good at it all."
Worst fears during the global recession
"For me the worst period of the crisis was I was getting really worried about social instability. … I knew the aluminum price would recover. I knew what plants we had to shut down. … the big unknown was the social element. It got bad, but not that bad."
Life with Rio Tinto
"Exploration was not our strength … we had about 15 geologists, now I have 400. It is Christmas everyday because they find bauxite [aluminum ore]"
On being CEO
"Some people say: 'I wouldn't trade places with you for a fortune.' I don't have a gun at my head. I like what I am doing. It comes with a fairly big agenda. … I like the complexity, I like the volume, I like the speed, I like the long-term view it requires."
On Ottawa's rejection of BHP Billiton's Potash takeover
"I think the principle of net plus value is very critical. … Countries need to be comfortable with how you operate … There are lessons for all involved."