Barrick Gold Corp. founder and chairman Peter Munk stood at the podium at the company's annual meeting and made the case he had to make. He was just too late.
Facing a shareholder base and media pack (including this author) that has been very critical of Barrick's decision to pay almost $12-million to co-chairman John Thornton, before Mr. Thornton had worked a day, Mr. Munk made an impassioned and reasoned argument that Mr. Thornton is worth the money. Shareholders clearly disagreed, voting no on Barrick's say on pay advisory resolution, forcing the company to consider revamping the pay package.
However, had Mr. Munk started making the case publicly earlier, he could have potentially swayed some of those votes.
Some votes were locked in as 'no' ballots, because many big investors vote how their proxy advisory services recommend. And both the big ones recommended 'no' on the say on pay issue.
Certainly, in the court of public opinion, he could have made some headway.
His argument stems from a belief that the world is a different, much riskier place for miners than even five years ago.
Barrick needs more top level access to decision makers in the countries where it operates, and where mines are threatened by political factors. Mr. Thornton's time as a top Goldman Sachs executive gives him that, Mr. Munk argued.
Barrick also may need capital from China, where Mr. Thornton is very connected from years running a top business school, he said. Barrick's shares, at current multiples, aren't an attractive source of capital. But a strategic investor in China might be, and Mr. Thornton knows them.
Barrick believes in pay for performance, but a person can't perform for you if that person never joins, the Barrick founder argued. It is a "chicken and egg" situation, Mr. Munk stated. So Mr. Munk said he convinced Barrick's board to bring Mr. Thornton on even at the high cost.
Barrick could have spent the money on some power shovels at a mine, and nobody would have minded, Mr. Munk said.
"I promise you John will do more for Barrick than six more shovels," he pledged.
By the end, the room was laughing at Mr Munk's jokes, and warming to him once again. A good chunk of the room stood to applaud him as he wrapped up.
There has never been any doubt about his charm. Had it been brought to bear sooner, Barrick might not be faced with the rebuke from shareholders it just got.
(Boyd Erman is a Globe and Mail Reporter & Streetwise Columnist.)
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