For Don Lindsay, the starkest indicator of his company's crisis was when the ships stopped coming. From his home, the CEO of mining giant Teck Resources Ltd. can count the boats lined up in the port of Vancouver to carry Teck's coal to the world.
"When the customer stops sending ships, you can see it," says Mr. Lindsay, 51, a former investment banker whose youthful face belies a turbulent five years as CEO.
In December, 2008, shortly after Teck closed a monumental $14-billion deal to buy the Fording coal business, the ships quit appearing. Their absence underscored the economic meltdown that, in the next several months, threatened to sink Canada's largest diversified metals producer.
Today, the ships are back and Mr. Lindsay, having finessed a difficult credit restructuring and acquired a Chinese investor, is breathing a big sigh of relief. But the game has changed, he says. With global recovery proceeding, although fitfully, he is focused on building cash flow from the resource gains made, with some pain, over the past five years.
How do you manage the stress?
The toughest thing is to keep things in perspective. The market always overreacts too positively or too negatively. The boom isn't as good as you think it is, and the crash isn't as bad as you think it is.
What was your darkest moment in the latest crash?
We knew what was happening. We were amazed, on Sept. 30, 2008, that the banks still lent us the money [to buy Fording]... even though Lehman Brothers had gone down, Citibank had been saved, and Goldman and Morgan Stanley had been converted [to banks]to save them.
We had a fiduciary obligation to do everything we could to close the deal, which we did. Then, you knew you were in for a very tough time. So you move into action; you go full out. You don't have time to have a dark moment.
When did it hit home?
Between Christmas and New Year's that year. I was up at our cabin. I'm a single dad with two young girls and I put the girls to bed and I was alone, just staring at the fire, thinking, "Oh my God, what have I done? How am I going to get out of this one?" That was probably the darkest day, when you know you put the plan in place but you don't know if it is really going to work. I had time to reflect and go, "Wow, this is going to be tough."
How do you feel now?
It has been pretty intense but I'm proud of where we ended up. We worked hard to be well positioned in key commodities that the world needs, particularly China. In the last five years, we've done a lot of building. We now have $1,000 of resources per share, and at much lower [commodity]prices. We used to have less than $500.
In the next five years, it is more about converting the resources we got hold of into production and cash flow. We are moving into a different type of growth. It doesn't mean we won't do acquisitions, but they aren't needed as much because of what we did in the past five years.
And you have a Chinese partner?
The Chinese coming on board was the 12th step in our 12-step plan. There is a bit of method in my madness - I called it the "12 steps" on purpose, as opposed to "12 points" or whatever.
In October-November 2008, when the world was in freefall and nobody knew where the bottom was, you needed a manageable plan everyone could relate to. The 12th step was to find a strategic investor. We had several choices - major mining companies, major customers - but to get what is effectively China's sovereign wealth fund was by far the most preferable.
Are there lessons about working with the Chinese?
This didn't happen overnight. I've been going to China for a long time. There is a point at which, all of a sudden, you've been going there long enough that they know you. Then you can probably do business more readily.
Our shareholder [China Investment Corp.]wanted exposure to commodities but they did not need to control them. There are no commercial arrangements, as such. But we are selling coal to China, which we weren't before. They have facilitated introductions.
But don't Canadian companies worry about the Chinese compulsion to control?
It's case by case. CIC is a passive investor; they wouldn't want to take a position over 20 per cent. They have 6 per cent of the votes and 17 per cent of the equity. They didn't even have a board seat for almost a year - and we invited them.
At the end of the day, there should be real value in this relationship. But you won't know till probably five years later how much they helped you build the company.
How have you enhanced your coal business?
We sold zero to China two years ago; last year, it was 20 per cent of our coal production. We will likely drop that percentage a little bit this year because the rest of the world has come back now. You have to strike a balance between traditional and new customers.
Can this be sustained?
There are still serious issues in Europe but I don't think 1.3 billion smart, hard-working people in China care that much about that. They are working hard to build themselves a better life. That hasn't changed because of Greece and Spain - and they need commodities to do that. And the Chinese government has been the best at managing its economy that we've seen in 20 years.
Yet here in North America, everyone is bombarded with U.S.-centric media. They describe the world from their point of view and, if the U.S. is not doing well, then people think, "Well, that's it for commodities."
Is there a concern that, having gone through such a crisis, you are becoming too timid?
No one who knows me would think that - although that would not be an illogical conclusion given what we went through. The mandate of any mining company's CEO, board and senior management is during their tenure to secure three to five large, long-life ore bodies to sustain the company for stakeholders in the next generation.
We did that and now we are resource-rich. If we see opportunities we will look carefully at those. But I don't think there is much in the way of big game-changers out there. A lot of that has already happened - and we participated.
During the rationalization of 2006-2007, did the Canadian mining industry get hollowed out?
Yes, hollowing out did occur. Noranda, Falconbridge, Inco, and Alcan all went quickly. They were leading companies that employed a lot of people - and they required services, from finance to legal, accounting and engineering. There is no question that has diminished substantially, and it is a loss for Canada. We said so at the time and people didn't accept those views and now, people realize how much Canada lost.
Having said that, the mining industry in Canada is as entrepreneurial as you will find. New companies get built up to take the place of the Norandas and Falconbridges. But there will be a gap for quite a few years.
I can assure you this would never happen in Australia; it would never happen in Chile. People build national champions in other countries. In the U.S. and Britain, they support and admire their champions. For some reason we didn't take that approach.
But won't the Australians simply tax their champions to death?
The proposed mining tax is a stunning development in Australia. We will have to wait and watch. We went through a version of that in Alberta when a new resource royalty regime was put in and there was a big backlash. Billions of dollars of investments were cancelled - although a lot of it was due to economy meltdown. I think Australia will consider it carefully before they put it in.
Does it affect you?
Not directly, because our assets in Australia aren't in operation at the moment but if Australia really does it, then logically there will be less investment there, particularly in coking coal. That would mean less coking coal, so prices would be higher.
If Canada or B.C. don't do it, we will benefit, but there are quite a few ifs. You worry that if one government does it, the other governments will look to do the same thing. But the Alberta experience was instructive. If you do it, investment does stop.
Title: President and CEO, Teck Resources Ltd., Vancouver
Born: October, 1958 in Toronto
Education: BSc., mining engineering, Queen's University MBA, Harvard Business School
First job out of school: Iron Ore Co. in Labrador City, as a foreman, then in mine planning and design.
Employed by CIBC World Markets Inc. from 1985 to 2004.
Served as president of the firm, head of investment and corporate banking, and head of the Asia-Pacific region.
Joined what was then Teck Cominco Ltd. as president in January, 2005.
Appointed to the board in February 2005 and became chief executive in April 2005.