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Barrick shakeup signals more changes ahead

The unusual new management structure at Barrick Gold Corp. signals two things – that John Thornton is now clearly in command of the world's largest gold miner, and that more changes lie ahead.

The company announced Wednesday that president and CEO Jamie Sokalsky will be resigning in September, after only two years in the post. He was a favourite of company founder Peter Munk and his departure suggests that Mr. Thornton, who was named chairman only three months ago, is eager to put his own stamp on the company.

The question is precisely what form that stamp will take. One possibility is that Barrick will attempt to reopen merger talks with Newmont Mining Corp. of Colorado. Discussions between the two mining giants blew up in April, with both sides slinging accusations at each other.

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Another possibility is that Barrick will strike a deal in China, a country where Mr. Thornton has extensive contacts from his days as chairman of Goldman Sachs Asia and as a business professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

A move in either direction would cheer Barrick investors, who have seen the company's share price cut in half over the past couple of years as gold prices tumbled and heavy debts weighed on the miner's bottom line.

During those tough years, Mr. Sokalsky earned applause for slashing operating costs, selling marginal mines and trimming debt. But his skill as a financial Mr. Fix-It doesn't seem to fit into Barrick's new vision.

In a surprising move, the company did not name a new CEO to replace Mr. Sokalsky and instead appointed two executives as co-presidents. Mr. Thornton appears likely to take over many of the CEO's duties himself, particularly in setting the strategic direction of the company, although he was quick to deny on Wednesday that his role had changed or that he harboured any ambitions to be CEO.

The company said that Kelvin Dushnisky and Jim Gowans, the new co-presidents, will "have overall responsibility for execution of the company's strategic priorities and operating plans." Missing from that description was any mention of a role for either executive in setting the strategy they will be implementing.

A co-president setup is unusual in the corporate world but not unknown. Oracle Corp. uses the structure; so does Citigroup. Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page also served as co-presidents for years. But in most such situations, co-presidents report to a CEO who has final authority.

In Barrick's case, the authority resides with Mr. Thornton. He is something of an expert on shared titles, having served alongside Mr. Munk as co-chairman of Barrick from 2012 until earlier this year, and before that as co-COO of Goldman Sachs and co-CEO of Goldman Sachs International.

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Barrick's new executive structure may reflect that personal history; some analysts, though, believe it is far more significant.

They say it could presage an attempt to restart talks with Newmont. Both companies own rich gold mines in Nevada and combining their operations would offer a gusher of savings.

Earlier talks fell apart, in part because of bitter debates over which executives would run the combined company and how they would report to one another. The absence of a CEO at Barrick might make it easier to merge the two corporate hierarchies, the analysts say.

The problem with that theory is that Mr. Thornton's own role in a merged company was widely perceived to be one of the most divisive issues in the talks earlier this year. It's not clear how the departure of Mr. Sokalsky solves that problem.

The one thing that is certain is that Barrick continues to face problems ranging from low gold prices to still onerous amounts of debt on its balance sheet. By saying farewell to Mr. Sokalsky, a widely respected 21-year veteran of the company, Mr. Thornton is making the company his own. For better or for worse.

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About the Author

Ian McGugan is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business and has been writing about investing, economics and business for more than 20 years. He joined the Globe and Mail in 2010. He has been executive editor of Canadian Business magazine and founding editor of MoneySense magazine. More

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