The appointment of Cynthia Carroll as chief executive of Anglo American is a shock on many fronts.
The 89-year-old diversified mining group, worth £37bn on the London stock market, has never before been led by someone from outside the company or by a non-South African. Obviously, the mining sector is not famous for its women chief executives either - there are probably no other women who run big companies in the industry.
But the question most on the lips of investors yesterday was this: is she up to the job?
Ms Carroll, a 49-year-old American who currently runs the aluminium division at Canadian group Alcan, is not an obvious heavyweight, nor does she have experience of the commodities that Anglo mines. She is to lead a company that is likely to have to cope with a takeover in the near future - Xstrata, Russia's RusAl or Brazil's CVRD are among the likely predators.
She will succeed Tony Trahar as chief executive next year with a package that could be worth up to £3m a year. The fall in Anglo shares yesterday, down 36p to 2,379p, reflects anxiety over the appointment. Names being touted for the position had included Philippe Varin, the chief executive of the steel maker Corus. If Mr Varin, or, say, an experienced internal candidate such as Simon Thompson, head of Anglo's base metals division, or a BHP Billiton executive, had been appointed, it would have been seen as a safe pair of hands. But an unknown American woman? That caught everybody off-guard.
No doubt there is an element of sexism in the reaction and it is unfair to express doubts before someone has had an opportunity to do the job. And some argue that Anglo is a fusty old company that needs a complete outsider to look at strategy and operations anew.
Paul Galloway, an analyst at UBS, said: "We believe she [Ms. Carroll] can look at Anglo without preconceived ideas or any internal preconception. She can focus on value, make hard decisions about the group and may be less conservative. The question is does she have the experience."
Ms Carroll is a geologist with global company business experience. Her 18-year career at Alcan included a period of running its bauxite mines around the world, and she has managed a project in South Africa, where most of Anglo's assets lie.
Although Anglo American is already in the middle of a restructuring programme, analysts believe that something more radical is required to stop it being swallowed up by another player. The most obvious way to keep the company independent is to pull off a large acquisition or merger. Ms Carroll's background is not one of making big acquisitions, though she was responsible for bedding down Alcan's purchase of France-based Pechiney.
Simon Toyne, an analyst at Numis Securities, said: "Anglo operates in an industry with some large acquisitive players who are generating record cashflows, and with which there could be substantial synergies. Post-restructuring, its value will come down to something within reach of the likes of Xstrata, especially if in concert with one or more other large players. It looks very vulnerable to a takeover."
Anglo's pipeline of projects is not considered to be particularly exciting, though it has some $6bn of approved plans and a further $10-15bn of unapproved schemes. It is essentially a portfolio of businesses and stakes, with interests in base metals, platinum, gold, diamonds (it owns 45 per cent of De Beers), ferrous metals, coal, industrial minerals, paper and packaging.
Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, Anglo's chairman, explained why the company had gone for Ms Carroll: "Apart from manifest CEO characteristics, we were really looking for three extra things. One was somebody who would continue the process of change and transformation that we've seen in Anglo-American over the past few years.
"The other was an absolute focus on operational excellence. We were looking for someone who had a track record in that, who could really demonstrate that they'd driven this. Thirdly, and also very important, someone with the skills and abilities and liking for dealing with the outside world: with politicians, with political connections - very important - but with shareholders, as well."
Ms Carroll's career at Alcan has shown that she is good at cutting costs. So cynics might say that she has been appointed to tidy up Anglo so that it will fetch a better price in the inevitable takeover. Intriguingly, under the terms of employment announced yesterday, she will get a pay-off worth twice her annual £900,000 salary if ousted in her first year.
Certainly, neither Sir Mark nor she herself signalled that radical change is not on the agenda. She said: "I have a lot of operational experience in working with the team to extract more value from our assets. Over the last number of years within Alcan, we have delivered more than $1bn in asset optimisation. A few years ago we had five plants in the fourth quartile of the cost curve. Today we have none."
Anglo has already been through a modernisation programme. In apartheid South Africa, unable to invest abroad, it had diversified into many industries. It sold off most non-mining assets in the 1990s, and in 1999moved its headquarters and primary listing to London. It has subsequently returned $9bn to investors and an additional $4bn share buyback programme has been announced.
A year ago, Anglo announced a further restructuring, which included the sale of its Highveld Steel business in South Africa (sold for $678m) and the demerger of its paper business, which will get a separate listing in London in the next few months. Analysts believe that the company could also sell its Tarmac industrial minerals business.
From confounding sexism, to moving Anglo "up the cost curve", to pulling off a mega-merger, Ms Carroll has plenty of challenges ahead.
Women still struggle to break through FTSE's glass ceiling
Cynthia Carroll yesterday joined a most exclusive club. When she succeeds Tony Trahar as chief executive of the natural resources giant next March, she will become only the third woman at the head of one of Britain's leading 100 companies.
Dame Marjorie Scardino, the chief executive of the media group Pearson since 1997, stood alone as the only female running a FTSE 100 company until this year.
In June she was joined by Dorothy Thompson after the electricity generation group she runs, Drax Power, claimed a position in London's leading benchmark. Similarly, Baroness Sarah Hogg remains the lone female chairman of a FTSE 100 company. She took that position at the venture capital firm 3i in 2002.
Not only do woman chief executives remain a rare species, so too do female executives. Recent studies have shown that some 89.5 per cent of FTSE 100 company directors are men. A greater number of women are securing roles as independent directors. They comprise 6.8 per cent of non-executive directors of the biggest companies, up from 3.1 per cent a decade ago.
Research by the corporate governance specialist Manifest this month painted a bleak picture for the growing number of women entering the world of business.
It found the rate of female appointments to top positions had slowed markedly and the trend towards smaller boards presented even fewer opportunities.
Nor is there much sign of the exclusive club throwing its doors open to a flood of new members any time soon.
In January, the Equal Opportunities Commission said it would take 40 years for women to reach parity with men in the country's boardrooms given present levels of recruitment. In another study this month, the consultancy Deloitte said one of the reasons women were not landing the very top jobs is that they often trim their hours after starting a family, which damages prospects for promotion.
Other countries have legislated to correct the chronic gender imbalance in boardrooms. In Norway, companies can be closed down unless women represent 40 per cent of directors. However, there too the preponderence of roles for women are still non-executive.
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