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Ian Delaney on stepping down, coming back and Castro

Ian Delaney, former CEO of Sherritt International Corp.

Thomas Dagg/Thomas Dagg

When Sherritt International Corp. chairman Ian Delaney assumed the CEO job again in 2009, 14 years after giving up the title, it wasn't by choice. His predecessor had to step away to handle a family matter, and the nickel, coal and electricity producer's share price had nosedived in the global financial crisis. Delaney felt obliged to help revive the company he won in a proxy fight in 1990 (and then led into more controversy by signing a joint-venture deal with the Cuban government in 1994). On Jan. 1, he handed over the CEO job to Sherritt CFO David Pathe, but is still hanging around as chairman.

You stepped down as CEO before. Are you leaving for sure this time? It took me two tries to get it right. I came back as a draftee, as opposed to a volunteer. One priority was to groom a successor.

Why leave again now? I would have happily done it a couple of years ago, but I didn't think we had guys ready to step up. Now they're ready. I can't say enough good things about David.

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How will you reflect back on your whole career at Sherritt? I took over the company in a hostile proxy context 21 years ago. It was functionally insolvent. Since then, we've built and disposed of a massive fertilizer company. We've been in cellular telephones, flat-panel displays, medical devices and agriculture. There were problems, but I have an enormous requirement for amusement in my occupation.

What was the most challenging period? Just after the takeover. Commodity prices kept sinking. Every time we turned around we were running smack up against liquidity.

How did you get through it? The worst mistake you make in that circumstance is to go into defence mode. I'd rather attack something. We took over a small oil and gas company in 1992. Then Goldman Sachs came along and said, "We have this high-yield bond market, you just bought this oil and gas business, we can finance that. We can probably finance the whole company." We issued a couple of high-yield debt securities in the United States. I went home after closing that transaction and had an easy sleep for the first time in three years.

What has been the most fun? Cuba, in its entirety.

Do you still speak with Castro? We've exchanged notes. He doesn't really see people these days.

How do you get notes to him? I am not going to tell you that!

What are these notes about? I won't tell you that either!

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How do you feel about your two nicknames on Bay Street: Castro's Favourite Capitalist and the Smiling Barracuda? I hope I'm Castro's favourite capitalist. We got together at a time when we both had serious problems. You don't really understand the colour of people in business until you see them under pressure. The relationships you form in hard times are the ones that endure. In good times, everyone's friendly. As for the Smiling Barracuda, I think that's accurate. If you aren't aggressive in business, you aren't going to survive. I don't come to the office to make enemies. I come to the office to represent my interests and my shareholders' interests.

How do you think Sherritt will perform in the current volatile commodities market? We have a pretty good balance sheet and can withstand lots of economic downturn. You have to keep a liquid balance sheet. You have to be a low-cost producer. If you fail to do either of those things, you'll be a victim of the cycle. What you must plan on in the commodities businesses is to take care of the downside. The upside takes care of itself.

What will you do next? I have hundreds of amusements and lots of business interests.

What are your hobbies? I like the outdoors. I fly planes and helicopters. I love boats.

Where do you like to do that? Northern Canada. It's absolutely the best place on the entire planet, bar none.

You're still banned from entering the United States. Do you feel you've missed out on anything? No. Their loss.

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