BHP appointment heralds new dawn for miners putting cost over growth



The new chief executive of the world's largest miner, BHP Billiton (NYSE: BBL - news) , has provided the first in-depth insight of his plans for the company.

Andrew Mackenzie, who is Scottish, said he is "committed to drive an agenda of productivity" and that this will be a "top theme" of his leadership.

The company announced last week that Mr Mackenzie will replace Marius Kloppers as chief executive in May. This completes a clean sweep of management changes for the leading miners, with Cynthia Carroll at Anglo American (LSE: AAL.L - news) , Tom Albanese at Rio Tinto (Xetra: 855018 - news) , and Mick Davis at Xstrata (Other OTC: XSRAF - news) all making way.

Mr Mackenzie will take charge at a time when the sector is switching its focus from growth to a battle to protect profit margins by cutting costs. This was reflected in the interim results released by BHP alongside news of the appointment of Mr Mackenzie, which outlined plans for $1.9bn (£1.25bn) of cost savings.

"We got started early," Mr Mackenzie told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Inside Business programme. "We recognised that there was an opportunity to really start working the productivity agenda hard. The first fruits are coming though in this half-year's results."

According to his predecessor, there is likely to be a sharp slowdown in demand for key commodities over the next few years. "I think over the next five years, we as Australia and as BHP Billiton are going to see very strong demand from China," Mr Kloppers said in the interview alongside Mr Mackenzie. "But we are going to move from growth rates in minerals demand of 15pc to 20pc a year to 2pc to 4pc a year."

Mr Mackenzie had been earmarked as a potential replacement for Mr Kloppers since he was poached from Rio Tinto in 2007 to run the company's non-ferrous arm, which is responsible for the world's largest source of copper, the Escondida mine in Chile.

The timing of the announcement last week was something of a surprise though.

Mr Kloppers may have missed out on mega-deals with Rio Tinto and Potash Corp in Canada, but he has not faced the same pressure as his peers at Anglo American and Rio Tinto.

Having been chief executive for nearly six years, Mr Kloppers said it was simply the "right time to pass the leadership baton". Indeed, he said that his biggest regret was not the failed mega-deals, but pouring billions of dollars into a alumina factory near Perth that has suffered from delays and falling demand for the commodity.

Alongside his career in industry, Mr Mackenzie, who speaks five languages, has built an impressive reputation in academia. He graduated as the top student in geology at St Andrew's before obtaining a doctorate in chemistry from Bristol University in 1980. The new BHP boss has published more than 50 research papers and founded BP Institutes at Cambridge (SES: E1:J91U.SI - news) , Princeton, Berkeley and Caltech,

During a 22-year career at BP (LSE: BP.L - news) , Mr Mackenzie discovered oil and gas fields in Norway and Indonesia and introduced extraction techniques in the North Sea.

This background means there is not only intrigue surrounding Mr Mackenzie's plans for BHP's existing operations, but how he may approach new avenues for investment, such as shale gas and sustainable energy.

"Clearly as the largest mining company, the operator of some of the biggest ore bodies in the world, we have a critical role to play," he said. "I want to continue Marius's success in the way where we apply the most modern management techniques and technology to ensure we develop them sustainably, safely and in a way the world gets the supply it wants."

"We have a tremendous choice of the things that we can invest in to grow. We are able to select only the best projects so that we actually do get some of the highest capital productivity and extend Marius's track record."

= Gold lows could mean an end to the 10-year rally =

Gold hit a seven-month low of $1,555 an ounce as the sell-off picked up pace last week. The catalyst was minutes from the US Federal Reserve suggesting its policy makers are incline to reduce, or end, the central bank's vast quantitative easing stimulus, in the wake of improving US economic data.

Markets grew nervous, as QE tends to support the gold price by sending investors looking for a "safe haven" to protect themselves from inflationary and dollar-weakening effects.

However, Ole S Hansen, Saxo Bank's commodity strategy head, saw something else stoking nerves: a "relatively rare technical signal called the death cross". This is when the gold price's 50-day rolling average drops below its 200-day moving average. Two out of the last three such "death crosses" were followed by marked sell-offs.

"Gold now needs a catalyst to propel it away from the "danger zone," said Hansen, with the number of traders taking short positions betting the price will fall rising.

"They have set their sights on the important $1,525/oz area, below which ultimately could spell if not the end, then a significant halt to the decade-long rally in gold," he said. "This could result in a near-term battle of wit between sellers and those who believe that gold should be a natural part of any diversified portfolio."

= Platinum stays high as violence continues =

Fresh violence in South Africa's platinum belt kept the precious metal's price high at the start of last week.

Mineworkers at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), the world's number one producer, went on strike on Tuesday after guards opened fire amid a confrontation between rival unions. Fifteen workers were injured in the fracas at the Siphumelele mine.

The trouble sparked worries of a repeat of the violent labour strikes which gripped the region last year and forced many mines to stop production. However, as miners returned to work on Wednesday, platinum started falling and ended the week down by around 3.5pc.

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