Inco Ltd. chairman Michael Sopko is stepping down as head of the company, capping a 37-year career by reporting the best profit in a decade and leaving two megaprojects on the drawing board.
Mr. Sopko stressed that before this summer, he expects Toronto-based Inco will formally announce that it will be going ahead with the $1.3-billion (U.S.) Goro nickel project in New Caledonia.
However, Inco also made clear at a meeting yesterday with analysts that going ahead with New Caledonia does not preclude it from proceeding with the Voisey's Bay nickel project in Labrador. Inco also said it will consider joint-venture partners for both projects.
Mr. Sopko will officially step down as chairman and chief executive officer at the annual meeting on April 25, although he will remain as non-executive chairman.
Inco president Scott Hand, 58, will become deputy chairman and CEO.
Peter Jones, 53, the executive vice-president, operations, will become president and chief operating officer.
"We're ready to return to the negotiating table to try to forge a deal [on Voisey's Bay]that makes sense for everyone involved -- Inco, the province and the Labrador Inuit Association and the Innu Nation," Mr. Hand said.
Inco is hopeful that a deal can be reached with the new Premier of Newfoundland, Roger Grimes, who has also said that he wants a deal to be done.
Mr. Hand has been responsible for Inco's negotiations with the province.
Inco said that production from Voisey's Bay could replace expected production declines in Ontario and Manitoba. Inco also said that it could defer planned projects in those provinces.
The New Caledonian authorities have agreed in principle to a tax regime involving a 100-per-cent tax holiday for the first 15 years of production followed by a 50-per-cent tax holiday for the next five years. That legislation is expected to be approved by June.
Mr. Sopko said, at 62 years of age and after 37 years with the company and nine years as chief executive officer, it is time to step down. He said that one of his disappointments last year was the inability to reach a deal on Voisey's Bay.
Mr. Sopko will remain as non-executive chairman for about a year and he said that he would stay on the board of directors for a couple of years after that in an advisory role.
Mr. Sopko is leaving the company in good financial shape. Inco said that high nickel prices and aggressive cost-cutting helped the company record its best year in a decade.
Profit for 2000 was $400-million (U.S) or $2.06 a share, compared with $12-million and a loss of 8 cents a share a year earlier. Its revenue was $2.9-billion, compared with $2.1-billion.
"The year 2000 has to go down as one of the best in company history," Mr. Sopko said.
Not even the slowing economy and high energy prices during the fourth quarter hurt results.
Inco's profit in the fourth quarter was $78-million or 39 cents a share, compared with $40-million and 18 cents a year earlier. Its revenue was $664-million, compared with $631-million.
The company said it sold nickel at an average price of $4.09 a pound during 2000, compared with $2.91 a year earlier.
During the fourth quarter, Inco realized $3.60 a pound, compared with $3.68 a year earlier.
However, nickel prices continue to drop. Nickel closed yesterday on the London Metal Exchange at $3.10 a pound, down 3 cents.
The shares of Inco fell 46 cents (Canadian) yesterday to $12.30 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Inco sold 439 million pounds of nickel, which it mined during 2000, compared with 400 million pounds a year earlier.
The company also purchases nickel on the open market for its customers.
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