Cynthia Carroll is a surprising appointment as the next chief executive of Anglo American on almost every level you care to take, the least of them being that she is a woman thrust into the heart of this testosterone-driven industry. There has been the occasional woman on the board of Anglo American, but only in a non-executive capacity. Ms Carroll is also Anglo's first non-South African chief executive.
Yet the biggest surprise is that she has no experience of running a mining finance house, or even a publicly quoted company of this size. At Alcan, she is only a divisional head, albeit of the company's biggest operation.
Nor does she have any apparent understanding of the continent where Anglo's interests are primarily concentrated - Africa - or of the delicate, ongoing negotiations surrounding Black Economic Empowerment in South Africa. What sort of an appetite does she have for the troubleshooting and power politics of mining for metals in some of the world's most difficult places? Is she capable of the double dealing and semi-corrupt practice this industry is known for? No one really knows.
Yet none of these things is necessarily a disadvantage. Anglo has set out a programme for root-and-branch change, which includes the disposal of non-core assets and the streamlining of others along more competitive lines. As a new broom, unencumbered by the baggage of the past, it may be that Ms Carroll is just the right person for the job; a breath of fresh air who can get things done. But she is also a largely unknown quantity and, as such, quite high risk.
Is she a match for the swashbuckling Brian Gilbertson, with his new platform as head of Russia's biggest aluminium company, or the equally ambitious Mick Davis, chief executive of Xstrata. Both are proven deal makers. In a fast-consolidating industry, they are hot to trot, with Anglo American a prey widely seen as there for the taking. One unkind analysis of her appointment doing the rounds in the City yesterday is that no one else would do it, knowing it was likely to be only a temporary berth. Perhaps wisely, Ms Carroll's contract comes feather-nested with an initial two-year notice period. Standard practice is for just one year. Here's hoping she manages to prove the sceptics wrong. Stranger things have been known.
User content: next big thing for mobiles
Courtesy of a demonstration from Sanjiv Ahuja, chief executive of Orange, I've been introduced to the delights of voting buff or rough on the mobile phone. The idea is the user puts his, or more usually her, photo on Orange World and invites other users to vote on whether they like the look of them. To those of us of a certain age, this seems a strangely brutal way of assessing public opinion of yourself, but then each to his own. As with the internet, many see "user-generated content" of this sort as the next big thing in mobile telephony.
Orange already has the service just described up and running, while 3 has SeeMe TV, a kind of YouTube on the mobile phone, under which users earn credits to spend with the mobile network according to the number of requests from other users for their video clips.
The revenue-generating power of such portals on the internet has yet to be demonstrated. MySpace and YouTube have changed hands for huge sums of money, but for the time being they earn next to no revenue.
What makes the mobile phone sites different is they immediately generate revenue, and plenty of it too. The more time people spend on the mobile, the more revenue it generates for the operators. By driving significantly higher levels of mobile-phone use, the business model works in a way which it has failed to on the internet, where there is no easy way of charging for content.
Hope for the internet model rests on the idea that the massive traffic such sites generate can be monetarised through advertising. Mobile phone companies also hope to make significant additional revenues through this channel by, for instance, allowing product sponsorship of the most popular content.
The content generators, too ,might eventually hope to tap into this market. It can surely only be a matter of time before some bright young amateur model persuades a major fashion brand that it makes more sense to sponsor her and her like than Kate Moss and other already established superstars.
If user-generated content is the next big thing on digital platforms, is it also another nail in the coffin for old media? Not necessarily, for the the two are different animals and therefore don't directly compete with one another. The consumer is likely to use both. Where they do compete is for people's time and through their time for advertising revenue.
More worrying still for old media, user-generated content is particularly popular with the young, which makes it potentially highly attractive to advertisers. The reason advertising tends to target low-earning youth before higher-earning, older age groups is because this is where lifelong brand loyalties are established. Once formed, it is hard and costly to get people to change their spending habits. It's anyone's guess how much of the advertising pie this form of content eventually attracts, but it may be a great deal higher than those in already beleaguered older forms of media would like to think.
BP: not drowning, only waving
We have become so used to the spectacle of ever-more eye popping profits from the oil majors that it comes as quite a shock to see BP report that in underlying terms they actually fell in the third quarter, the first time this has happened in ages.
This column warned a couple of months back that the party for oil profits had already reached its drunken end game, and that thereafter it was likely to be all down hill. Lord Browne, BP's chief executive, echoed these sentiments yesterday by saying that the trading environment is now notably weaker than it has been for the past five quarters.
Lower production, weaker refining margins, higher costs, higher taxes, and of course, lower oil prices, has brought to an end more than three years of steadily rising profits.
Absent of a sudden resurgence in the oil price, which seems unlikely given the amount of new capacity coming on stream over the years ahead, profits are almost certain to fall further still. It would be wrong to characterise this as a return to the bad lands of the early 1990s for Big Oil. The $7bn of net profit earned by BP in the third quarter is hardly suggestive of impoverishment. The price of oil is still relatively high by historic standards, and there is no collapse in profits in prospect.
Yet the supercharged profits of recent times are a thing of the past. BP and others are entering an altogether leaner period. In such circumstances thoughts turn naturally to consolidation as a way of keeping the bottom line growing. Lord Browne articulated the case for it again yesterday in pointing out what a fragmented industry oil really is outside the closed environment of the main Middle Eastern producers. Even in Russia, BP is struggling to remain welcome against a wave of anti-foreign sentiment.
Would he ever be allowed to merge with Shell? Rightly, the chairman, Peter Sutherland, has slapped down any such suggestion from the deal hungry imaginings of his executives. Even if it could be got through anti-trust regulators, which without demerger of downstream interests looks well nigh impossible, the management challenge of crunching such two such different corporate cultures together would very likely plunge both of them into darkness for years to come.
Any such notion remains in the realms of hubris. Yet smaller fry, as Lord Browne attempts to salvage BP's reputation from the beating it has received in the US, seems a sensible enough response to the harder times in which the industry finds itself.Reuse content