Marius Kloppers: Lion king of mining nears end of his reign

The industry is convinced BHP's CEO will depart this year. Mark Leftly explains why
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The Independent Online

Marius Kloppers has been described as a "control freak", who banned staff from eating smelly lunches in their offices and sticking Post-it notes to their computers. His "bit of a temper" was demonstrated when – jokingly – he threatened to kill a colleague during a press conference.

He is a cricket nut, a former conscript in apartheid-era South Africa, extraordinarily smart, and, as The Independent on Sunday once put it, chews his gum "like a lion feasting on a particularly meaty antelope". That said, Mr Kloppers is a vegetarian.

However, this particular panthera leo, who has run mining empire BHP Billiton since October 2007, has never before been thought of as the hunted. Mining sources everywhere, be they former BHP directors, bankers or senior industry figures, believe that Mr Kloppers will be out by the end of the year after a string of failed megadeals and expansion plans.

Late last year, in news far more widely followed up by the press in Australia – BHP is dual-listed in London and Down Under – it was reported that the company had hired the British arm of headhunter Heidrick & Struggles to identify his successor.

At the company's annual general meeting in November, chairman Jac Nasser played down the move as "a process that every company has" to undergo to ensure potential leaders are identified in good time, while the inferences have been that Mr Kloppers has another 18 to 24 months in charge.

Yet a former colleague sighs that the 50-year-old is a "lame duck" as a result of that news being leaked, and will be forced out soon. A mining veteran laughs that bosses who are known to be on their way out "rarely last to the end of the timetable" that has been set out.

Although Mr Kloppers had huge ambitions for his tenure, they have largely failed due to a toxic mix of global economic collapse, antiquated national protectionism and rising costs. Early in his tenure, the Afrikaner attempted to transform the sector's landscape by purchasing fierce rival Rio Tinto, although he showed good judgment in abandoning that deal when the economy undermined its rationale.

Then there was the $39bn (£25bn) offer for the elaborately named Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, which introduced the world to the name of the fertilizer needed to feed the world's growing population and to a little-known province in Canada.

Saskatchewian and national politicians baulked at the idea that such a vital resource could fall into foreign hands, and forced Mr Kloppers to abandon the deal at the cost of more than £200m.

However, the fact that a near-$40bn takeover did not represent a significant enough proportion of BHP's market value to force a shareholder vote to approve the takeover is testament to how well the company's share price has done under Mr Kloppers' leadership.

The big deal that the alpha male of global mining so wanted proved elusive, while a $2.84bn write-down on US shale gas assets angered shareholders who were also looking for a chunky dividend pay-out last year.

With Mick Davis leaving Xstrata and Cynthia Carroll on the way out at Anglo American, Mr Kloppers is likely to be the third of a formidable mining trinity that will be gone before Big Ben chimes in 1 January 2014.

Name's Murray, not Bond

Glencore chairman Simon Murray, who was infamously accused of sexism for old-fashioned comments on pregnancy in 2011, has been tipped for the same role once the cobalt-to-sugar trader merges with Xstrata.

Sir John Bond, above, currently Xstrata's chairman, was supposed to take up the job. However, he will leave the company after investors voted down a £140m package he was pushing to retain key Xstrata staff.

A banking source said the move "made sense", although it would mark a turnaround of fortune after Mr Murray was so derided for saying that boardroom women have "a tendency not to be so involved quite often".