After several years of tumult, investors can be forgiven for looking forward to Barrick Gold's (NYSE: ABX ) entering a period of quietude, and there are indications that may be what's happening. Institutional Shareholder Services, the influential proxy service that weighs in on corporate governance issues, has given its blessing to the gold miner's compensation package indicating a return to normalcy.
Investors have been questioning management decisions for several years, including hedging policies that caused billions in writedowns; a controversial, overpriced takeover of copper miner Equinox Minerals; asset sales such as Barrick Energy, that forced it to suffer hundreds of millions in losses; and what some regarded as obscene pay practices that had both ISS and Glass Lewis recommending clients vote against the packages.
During a time when Barrick's stock lost two-thirds of its value, its far-flung global operations came under attack by local interests, its debt load climbed to crippling proportions, jobs were slashed, and the price of gold crumbled impeding its ability to advance certain projects or develop new ones, the board of directors was lavishing management with multimillion-dollar signing bonuses and payments.
In what even one of its directors termed "a huge wakeup call," more than 85% of its shareholders voted against Barrick's compensation plan last year in a non-binding referendum.
Although it didn't have to follow the advice its investors gave, it was prudent to do so and the gold miner initiated what would become a major shakeup, starting with company founder Peter Munk's retirement and the appointment of four new independent directors to the board. While that should have been a sign that things were changing, it was immediately thrown into turmoil again when two existing independent directors abruptly resigned because they charged that Munk hand-picked the replacements, bringing into question just how independent they would be.
But maybe the new tone from headquarters and ISS's call to support the pay package could be the beginning of the turnaround investors been waiting for.
As the Fool's Vladimir Zernov recently wrote, the new compensation scheme ties pay to performance by mandating management will only be compensated if the miner achieves certain specific goals, that the largest part of the compensation will only be convertible into shares in the company, and then the executives can get at it only when they retire or leave the company.
Barrick Gold remains the world's largest gold miner, and it continues to be one of the lowest-cost producers. It still has a vast, valuable portfolio with a deep bench of projects it can call on when industry economics improve, which I remain convinced will occur sooner rather than later. Investors have looked forward to the time when they can forget about boardroom antics and concentrate on mining gold again, and with the April 30 vote on executive pay fast approaching, they may have arrived at that happy place at last.
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