Don Lindsay didn't have much time to eat when he sat down for dinner last month with investors in a wood-panelled private dining room at Hy's, the popular Bay Street steakhouse.
Oil prices were falling faster than the temperature on the December night and fund managers at the table wanted Mr. Lindsay, chief executive officer of Teck Resources Ltd., to explain why the company wasn't changing course to adjust.
The Vancouver-based mining giant was already reeling from a jarring price collapse in the company's core metallurgical coal and copper commodity markets. Why, some investors wanted to know, was Teck persisting with its $2.9-billion minority investment in the sprawling Fort Hills oil sands project after spot oil prices had fallen precipitously by more than 60 per cent.
"Can you afford this project at these prices?" one investor asked, according to people familiar with the session. Mr. Lindsay's response was difficult for some investors to swallow.
"I love low oil prices," Teck's CEO enthused. Cheaper, he explained, meant lower construction costs for an oil mining complex that is still nearly two years away from production.
Since the dinner, oil, coal and copper prices have continued their descent, dramatically shrinking profits and placing more pressure on Mr. Lindsay to defend Teck's strategy. Teck's stock has fallen 74 per cent since its 2011 peak to $15.97 as of yesterday's close on the Toronto Stock Exchange, its lowest level since 2009.
To be sure, Teck's weakened condition is largely a byproduct of one of the deepest and most sustained resource commodity crashes in more than a decade. Mining and energy companies across the board have been hit hard.
Teck's current woes mark the second time the company has struggled under the leadership of Mr. Lindsay, a former investment banker hired as president in 2005. The last time was 2009 when the company nearly succumbed to heavy debts from a takeover. Mr. Lindsay has continued to consider mining acquisitions, including Glencore's Las Bambas copper project in 2013, at a time that some investors believe the company should be more focused on cutting costs.
According to sources close to Teck, some company directors are pushing for new senior managers and directors with deeper mining experience. The company lost one of its most seasoned mining veterans, senior vice-president Ron Vance, in 2013 and Christopher Thompson, former CEO of Gold Fields Ltd., has notified the company he won't stand for re-election as a director this year.
Sources said that at least one director has questioned Mr. Lindsay's performance. But a majority of board members, including the company's controlling shareholder and chairman, Norman B. Keevil, back Mr. Lindsay's leadership.
Mr. Lindsay declined to be interviewed for this story. Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Keevil issued a statement endorsing Mr. Lindsay.
"The Board, and I, support Don's leadership and his ability to manage through difficult times like this. He's done it very well before, and knows as well as anyone what needs to be done."
In his statement Mr. Keevil conceded that there is "some tension" on the board, which he attributed to the impact of plunging commodity prices.
"A little tension is a lot better than everyone staring straight ahead with an Alfred E. Neuman 'What, me worry?' attitude," he said. "It's worth noting that this kind of tension, or diversity of opinion, is good, and is not the same as dissension."
To bolster Teck's mining bench strength, Mr. Keevil said the company has launched a search for two new board members with mining experience.
Teck has stumbled before under Mr. Lindsay. The mining giant narrowly avoided catastrophe in 2009 when the financial crisis and a temporary crash in commodity prices left it with insufficient capital to pay off debts from its $14-billion takeover of Fording Canadian Coal Trust. The mining company was rescued by a $1.74-billion investment by state-owned China Investment Corp., today the largest shareholder of Teck's class B shares with a 17-per-cent stake.
A spokesman for CIC declined to comment on its investment in Teck.
Today, Teck is in a much stronger position financially, with about $2-billion of cash and $8-billion of debt. Its biggest challenge is metallurgical coal, which accounts for 44 per cent of its revenues. Since the commodity boom peaked, coal prices have plunged 60 per cent and the outlook is grim for a mineral used primarily in steel production. Teck's biggest competitors continue to produce large volumes of metallurgical coal at a time when demand in China, one of the world's biggest buyers, wanes.
Copper, which accounts for one-third of Teck's revenues, faces similar issues of oversupply and slowing demand. The red metal has dropped 38 per cent in three years.
This is reflected in Teck's financial statements. Teck's profit for the first nine months of last year fell 68 per cent to 40 cents a share.
"We continue to see headwinds for Teck in 2015, including a persistent supply glut for seaborne hard coking coal, significant capital requirements at Fort Hills and lack of free cash flow," said Shane Nagle, a metal analyst with National Bank Financial.
A less serious threat is the company's minority stake in the Fort Hills oil sands mining project in northern Alberta. Teck and Suncor, Fort Hills's majority owner, are committed to developing the project despite low oil prices.
"We are working to take advantage of the current low oil price environment which is expected to reduce cost pressures during the construction phase," Mr. Keevil said.
Teck's capital commitment for the project is $850-million this year. The expense will erode Teck's free cash flow, forecast to be negative $1.25-billion this year, according to National Bank Financial estimates.