Skip to main content

Gold bars.LISI NIESNER/Reuters

If one thing is clear at Barrick Gold Corp., it is that 84-year-old co-chairman and founder Peter Munk is still very much in charge.

Barrick hired Ammar Al-Joundi as its new chief financial officer on Tuesday, bringing an 11-year company veteran back into the fold and completing a management overhaul at the world's largest gold company that started earlier this month.

The announcement came just weeks after Mr. Munk announced that Barrick had ousted chief executive officer Aaron Regent and replaced him with Jamie Sokalsky, a 20-year Barrick insider who was promoted from CFO.

"I think after the recent events it's clear who's going to be the main boss there," said George Topping, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus in Toronto.

Mr. Munk has never strayed far from the helm of Barrick, the company he founded after arriving in Canada as a young immigrant from Hungary. Even after he stepped down as chief executive officer in 1997, Mr. Munk still called the shots at Barrick, while subsequent CEOs struggled to assert full leadership.

Mr. Regent was a 43-year-old superstar CEO at Brookfield Infrastructure Partners in late 2008 when Mr. Munk hired him away. He was regarded as a capable leader at Barrick, which made the June 6 dismissal a surprise to investors. Mr. Munk was clear the board was "disappointed with our share price," which had wallowed even as the company returned record profits.

Still, investors believe there's more to it. Some insiders say the two got off to a famous start, but then clashed over growth strategies. Mr. Munk wanted to fuel Barrick's growth with big, transformative deals. Mr. Regent was more cautious, preferring incremental transactions with a longer-term horizon.

Barrick disputes that characterization. "Any speculation about disagreements over major decisions between Aaron and the Board is totally baseless," the company said in an e-mailed statement. It also said its "priorities for the year are unchanged," citing major development projects such as Pueblo Viejo, Pascua-Lama and Jabal Sayid.

"Our goal will be to maximize returns and free cash flow generation through efficient capital allocation," the statement continued. "With this objective in mind, the company is currently undertaking a full review of all its projects and operations."

Barrick didn't provide more details of the review. The company, along with all major mining companies, is grappling with fast-rising costs at some of its big projects.

The bottom line for Mr. Munk is Barrick's lagging share price. He had become increasingly upset about the slumping stock in recent months, publicly chastising Mr. Regent and the management team at an annual meeting in Toronto just weeks before ousting Mr. Regent.

But the move left investors unsatisfied. Barrick's stock has fallen another 14 per cent from the day Mr. Regent was replaced.

"It was a surprise and I think the stock reaction also tells you that if Aaron had been the problem, then removing him should have led to a positive stock reaction," Jorge Beristain, managing director for metals and mining research at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc in New York, said after Mr. Regent was dismissed. "I think a big part of that can be blamed on the information vacuum that has been created by his departure ... I certainly haven't heard a concrete explanation as to why he was ousted."

It's not clear what finally made Messrs. Munk and Regent part ways, but several people with knowledge of the company and its strategy say the relationship was first strained in early 2011 when Barrick announced the $7.3-billion acquisition of Equinox Minerals, a copper company.

The all-cash deal was driven by Mr. Munk and his long-loyal board, and Mr. Regent was under pressure to champion the deal.

Stalwart gold investors criticized it as a departure from Barrick's focus on gold mining – even though the company already owned other mines with copper output. Barrick's market value sank by billions of dollars in the weeks after the deal was announced.

Mr. Regent is described by friends and former colleagues as a consummate diplomat who is loyal to a fault but not afraid to hold his ground. As a rugby player at the University of Western Ontario, he was described as a creator of opportunities, and he is said to have maintained those qualities as an executive.

Many Barrick investors say they trust in Mr. Munk's instincts.

"I look at Barrick and say, okay, there are two possibilities, that Regent got fired because there is something that is not in the open yet, or because the board felt they could get more out of the existing leadership," said Tim Logan, a Barrick shareholder and a portfolio manager at Cockfield Porretti Cunningham in Toronto.

"I have a feeling this is an aggressive board, and I'm okay with that because the assets are good assets and it would be a sloppy board that could really destroy value in great assets."