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Energy and Resources Randgold CEO Mark Bristow a seemingly odd fit as new Barrick Gold chief

Barrick Gold Corp.'s proposed new chief executive officer, Mark Bristow, is a larger-than-life character: a former conscript soldier in South Africa’s apartheid army whose hobby is riding motorcycles across the most dangerous and remote corners of the African continent.

Mr. Bristow has a long record of success in some of Africa’s toughest mining regions, but he could be an odd fit in Barrick’s buttoned-down corporate environment. He is notoriously outspoken, often making blunt pronouncements on the perceived errors of investors, politicians and other mining companies.

The 59-year-old miner has manoeuvred shrewdly through Africa’s challenges, building his Randgold Resources Ltd. into a multibillion-dollar empire with major projects in Mali, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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But when the Congolese government announced a plan to hike mining taxes this year, he lashed out furiously at the plan. “It seems to be based on the entirely irrational premise that the state is somehow entitled to the entire cash flow from the mines,” he told a mining conference in Cape Town.

He called it an “abuse of the partnership concept,” and an attempt to “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.”

And when investors nervously sold off Randgold stock in response to the Congo tax dispute, he lashed out at them, too, criticizing the market reaction as “pathetic” and panicky.

He has been scathing in his response to Africans who blame colonialism or apartheid for their economic woes. “Africa lives a lie,” he told a British newspaper in 2011. “It sometimes doesn’t realize you have to get up in the morning and do a day’s work.”

Mr. Bristow has been equally scathing in his critique of his competitors in the mining industry. He has said that the industry’s giants are too lumbering and ineffective and are concealing their true costs, failing to reinvest in exploration and failing to produce value for their shareholders. “The one thing this industry does very well is mine gold at a loss,” he told analysts at a meeting in Toronto last year.

On Monday morning, in a booming voice, Mr. Bristow vociferously defended the merits of the takeover of his baby by global behemoth Barrick, during an hour-long conference call with analysts, which started at 3 a.m. ET, and which Mr. Bristow dominated.

One analyst questioned whether Randgold’s famously flat corporate structure and nimble operating culture might clash with the bigger and more staid Barrick, which has vastly underperformed the much smaller Randgold.

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Mr. Bristow says he intends to implement “the Randgold way,” which places an emphasis on efficiency and the ability to make quick decisions, and that there is no culture clash between the two companies at the executive level.

He added that Barrick executive chairman John Thornton has done a lot of work “cleaning up the baggage” at the company over the past few years, including paying down billions in debt, incurred in part from the disastrous acquisition of copper miner Equinox Minerals Ltd., made in 2011.

Born in the South African town of Estcourt, near the Drakensberg mountains, Mr. Bristow was conscripted into South Africa’s army in the late 1970s and saw action in Angola and Namibia in the apartheid regime’s notorious “border war” against Namibian liberation fighters. He has said that he was a supporter of political reforms in South Africa during his university days when anti-apartheid protests were escalating.

After training as a geologist at the University of Natal and obtaining a doctorate, he entered the mining industry and, in 1995, became the co-founder of Randgold Resources, which focused on gold projects in west and central Africa.

He built Randgold into one of the world’s biggest and best-performing mining companies, managing to avoid the worst of the periodic downturns in the gold sector. In 2016, Harvard Business Review ranked him 23rd on its list of the world’s 100 best-performing CEOs.

Over the past nine years, he has embarked on four motorcycle safaris across Africa to raise money for charity. His first trans-African motorcycle safari was in 2009, from Cape Town to Cairo. The fourth was a 28-day, 8,000-kilometre journey from Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast to the DRC’s Atlantic coast in 2016, including weeks in dense equatorial jungle.

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In business terms, 2018 has been a much more difficult year for Mr. Bristow, with formidable obstacles in three African countries. Along with the tax dispute in the DRC, his company has also faced a tax battle with the government in Mali and damaging strikes by workers at some of its biggest mines in Ivory Coast and Mali. Its share price has dropped by about 30 per cent this year as it struggled with those issues.

In the DRC tax conflict, Mr. Bristow has been among the leaders of the mining companies that have sought concessions from the government – so far without success.

The DRC’s new mining code will increase taxes, especially on “strategic” minerals, and will introduce a 50-per-cent “super-profits” tax if commodity prices rise much faster than expected. Most significantly, it eliminates a clause that had protected existing miners from tax increases for a 10-year period.

Despite taking the unusual step of flying with other mining executives on a hasty trip to the country’s capital, Kinshasa, for emergency talks with President Joseph Kabila in early March to seek a compromise, Mr. Bristow failed to win the changes that he was seeking. He has also threatened legal action against the country, but none of the tactics have worked so far.

With files from reporter Niall McGee in Toronto.

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