An American credited with turning a sleepy regional grain handler into a global agricultural behemoth has been named as the next chief executive of Hydro One Inc.
The Ontario utility, slated to go public soon, announced Thursday that Kansas-born Mayo Schmidt, a former wide receiver with the Miami Dolphins, will take over from current CEO Carmine Marcello on Sept. 3.
As CEO of Viterra Inc. – formerly Saskatchewan Wheat Pool – from 2000 to 2012, Mr. Schmidt cut thousands of jobs, butted heads with creditors, slashed debt, diversified the company's business and ultimately transformed it into a nimble, multibillion-dollar operation. In 2012, the company was sold to Glencore International for $6-billion.
David Denison, chair of Hydro One, said in an interview that the company considered prospects from the United States, Europe and as far away as Australia before settling on Mr. Schmidt as "the best-qualified person." Mr. Schmidt will "sharpen the company's focus on system reliability" and work on improving "customer satisfaction, efficiency and productivity," he added.
In April, the Ontario government announced plans to partially privatize the provincially owned utility in a public stock sale of 15 per cent of the company. Beyond guiding the company through its IPO, Mr. Schmidt faces a number of challenges, including improving Hydro One's balance sheet and repairing its public image, which took a beating after a billing kerfuffle that saw the company issue faulty bills to more than 100,000 customers.
"A fine hire," said Bruce Campbell, president of Campbell, Lee & Ross Investment Management Inc., on the appointment of Mr. Schmidt as CEO. As a former shareholder of Viterra, Mr. Campbell said the two met a number of times.
Mr. Schmidt's experience dealing with the Saskatchewan government during his tenure at Viterra will help in his dealings with the Ontario government, Mr. Campbell said, adding that the only real knock against him is his lack of experience running a utility.
"The perfect candidate would be all of the things that he [Mr. Schmidt] does bring, with the utility experience," he said.
Hydro One has done well to land such "a high-profile CEO," said Norman Levine, managing director of Portfolio Management Corp.
But Mr. Schmidt has a tricky job ahead of him, Mr. Levine said. He will essentially have two sets of bosses – public shareholders and the Ontario government, which has proven itself to be an "interventionist master." The provincial Liberals will still hold an 85-per-cent stake in Hydro One after the first 15-per-cent tranche of stock goes public.
Mr. Schmidt has kept a low profile since stepping down from Viterra in 2012, but his focus has remained mostly in the agricultural sphere. Since 2013, he has served as a director with Agrium Inc. In November of last year, he was named CEO of the Netherlands-based Louis Dreyfus Commodities, but in late December, shortly before he was due to assume the job, the company unexpectedly announced he would not be taking up the position after all.
Hydro One did not disclose how much it will pay Mr. Schmidt, but his compensation is expected to be considerably higher than what the current CEO, Mr. Marcello, a public-sector employee, makes. He was paid a salary of slightly more than just over $741,000 in 2014.
Mr. Schmidt's compensation will be "consistent with what executives are paid in this sector for a public company," Mr. Denison said.
Hydro One has been getting its executive team in order over the past few months in preparation for the initial public offering. In June, the company appointed former Maple Leaf Foods Inc. executive Michael Vels as its chief financial officer. The company is still on the hunt for an ombudsperson.
The exact timing of the IPO is unknown, but Mr. Denison said he would like it to be completed before the end of the year.
Mr. Campbell said going public right now doesn't make sense "given how bad these markets are," and estimates that a company going public currently would sacrifice 3 per cent to 5 per cent of its value, strictly because of market conditions. He expects the Ontario government to hold off on the IPO for the next few months.
Mr. Denison, however, played down the impact a negative market might have on Hydro One's plans to go public.
"I think the positioning of a company like Hydro One is less dependent on general market conditions than, say, a lot of IPO candidates might be, who would perhaps pull back if general market conditions aren't ideal," Mr. Denison said.
"We're pretty confident that there will be great receptivity to the Hydro One IPO. This is a utility-focused company with quite a bit of clarity around what its revenue streams will be for the next few years".
The government is expected to raise about $2.25-billion in the public offering, which would be the biggest Canadian stock sale in about 15 years.